How research will drive the next stage of strategic storytelling for social good: #ComNet16 takeaways

 

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Between soaking in views of the Detroit river and DIA’s Diego Rivera mural, conference goers at ComNet16, a gathering of social sector communication leaders, found that many sessions emphasized a crucial communication challenge: good storytelling.

We know that being able to tell the story of our social issues is crucial to engaging and moving audiences. But what exactly makes for good story? What can we expect to achieve with a good story? How do we move beyond the trite, sometimes exploitative, and all-too-familiar trope: “organization x saves person y from circumstance z?”

As a researcher, I am trained to look to the data and the existing research to answer these questions. While I think there is room for more research on strategic storytelling and more translational work to make this research accessible, I was delighted to see that speakers at the conference provided some excellent case studies of how it looks to do strategic storytelling.

The first keynote with Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center kicked things off with the journey (marathon?) to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, including how research informed the campaign and messaging (read more here). Doug Hattaway later recalled how achieving marriage equality demanded shifting of the story from “lgbtq people deserve equal civil rights” to “marriage is between two committed individuals.”

John Trybus of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication introduced us to the emerging megatrends of storytelling (think virtual reality, etc.).


In an electrifying Q&A with Jesse Salazar, NY Times columnist Charles Blow reminded us that if our storytelling does not ultimately create change, we have fallen short. Storytelling has to do more than entertain or delight. Our strategic communication should be in service of changing hearts and minds, which in turn, drives social and policy change. And it can — here’s a brief review of the science behind how stories can create change.

Nat Kendall-Taylor of Frameworks Institute and Shaun Adamec reminded us of the importance of how we frame social issues. For example, do we talk about addiction in terms of empathy (“we need to identify with addicts and treat them with compassion”) or interdependence (“everyone has a stake in solving this problem”)? Though many communicators are prone to tell stories about addiction that are meant to inspire empathy, the Institutes’s research results from a sample in Canada suggested the empathy frame may be counter productive, actually decreasing support for policies that addressed disparities in the access to and delivery of addiction services. We can’t trust that our well-intended story will have the effect that we intend on our audiences. Our storytelling must utilize strategic framing.


Finally, Doug Hattaway and Alfred Ironside presented their ambitious attempt to answer some of these questions about how to frame strategic stories and messages: a research initiative called American Aspirations, based on a nationwide survey of 2,000 people about their values. There is much still to be reported about the methods used for this study and its results (I’m studying for my PhD–I had to say it).


However, I am happy to see this proactive effort meant to find common ground for persuasive communication. The crucial question, once we’ve identified common values, is how people with certain values actually respond to the messages targeting these values. Unfortunately, we can’t always assume our communication meant to target those values are indeed perceived as in line with those values.

We must commit to the task of rigorous strategic storytelling that drives change by developing stories based on the data and by evaluating our stories for impact.

Why dedicate your career to communication?

I get various iterations of the question “Why communication?” as a response when others ask about what I am studying for my PhD. This has to do, I think, with the fact that communication is often taken for granted as a basic function of life, like breathing or sleeping. Talking is equated with communicating. Given this mindset, each of us have been communicating ever since we learned how to talk as children. How can you study something so basic and why?

Short answer: Because I’m all about creating communication breakthroughs that help to create a better reality.

Consider moments in life in which you experienced a communication breakthrough. Maybe you tried a new way of talking to loved one during those nasty recurring fights that ultimately eliminated that repetitive interaction. Maybe at work you changed the way the stale staff meeting is scheduled or arranged, leading to an entirely different conversation with new insights, priorities, or objectives. Thinking about how things were before and after such breakthroughs reveals a hopeful truth: a new, better reality (more efficient, engaging, peaceful, empowering, etc.) is created through better communication. Some scholars refer to development of such breakthroughs as generativity.

When we view communication as a process of creating messages to facilitate shared meaning–or more boldly, to drive action–the distinction between communication and strategic communication becomes more clear. In fact, there are a maddeningly endless number of ways to organize and present a message, each of which are more or less strategic than the others. These are choices that we make–whether we are aware of this fact or not–as we create and share messages in our lives or in our work. How should the message be framed? What language, phrases, terms, or figurative devices should be used? Who should deliver the message? How and when should it be transmitted? How should it be tailored for the audience(s)? And so on.

So, why do I study communication? Because I want to immerse myself in the research to get to the bottom of these questions, which inform how to create more strategic messages that help to bring about more understanding, less stigma, more motivation, and more action!

 

Top 5 public parks in Raleigh (or 5 of many reasons I’m sad to leave)

My husband and I are excited to be moving this month to Lexington, Kentucky. However, we are also sad to be leaving Raleigh. This is for many reasons, First, the great people. Second, the natural beauty of the area, which is accentuated by so many fabulous parks. It is about the latter of these reasons I would like to do some reminiscing.

For the past four years, my husband and I have called downtown Raleigh home — and before that, NC State campus. During this time, we’ve made it our goal to explore as many of the fabulous parks in this area as possible — and we still didn’t hit them all!

Our most recent visit to North Raleigh Landfill District Park

Our most recent visit to North Wake Landfill District Park

I’m proud to say we visited all 8 Wake County parks, 10 of the 90+ City of Raleigh parks, biked many of the greenways — and visited many other parks in the Triangle area, including State parks such as Umstead, NC State parks such as JC Raulston Arboretum, and privately-owned parks such as Joslin Garden, and WRAL Azalea gardens.

Given these experiences, I humbly offer my picks for top five public parks to visit in Raleigh — my love letter to this beautiful city! Each of these parks offer both opportunities to enjoy the greenery of Raleigh as well as cultural and educational enrichment. The combination of a beautiful space that also engages you intellectually or culturally in the history and strengths of your community is what makes a great park experience to me.

Without further ado, I present my top five parks to visit in Raleigh:

#5 – Lake Crabtree County Park

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Biking at Lake Crabtree Park

Technically, this park is located in Morrisville, but it might as well be Raleigh as it’s located off of Aviation Parkway next to I-40. My favorite part is the fabulous green expanse that backs up to the Lake Crabtree waterside, which on many weekends is crawling with frisbee throwers, dog walkers, family picnicers, volleyball players and more. Yet, the park rarely feels crowded (as does Umstead). The park also boasts boating, wooded trails and mountain biking trails.

Don’t miss: Climbing the tower in the boathouse for a gorgeous view of Lake Crabtree and recreational areas in the park.

 

#4 – Pullen Park

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As the first public park in NC, Pullen Park is a significant Raleigh historic site — including a working carousel from 1911 (which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places). Yet, this park continues to evolve and recreate itself into an even more interesting place for families to gather and enjoy themselves. You’ll also find miniature train rides, pedal boating, an aquatic center, and arts center to boot.

Don’t miss: the Drum Circle / Hoop Jam at Pullen every Wed eve at 6:30 p.m April – October.

# 3 – Historic Yates Mill County Park

This park off of Lake Wheeler Road has so much to offer. The short wooded trail around

Yates Mill Park during the holidays

Yates Mill Park during the holidays

Yates Mill Pond includes viewpoints of the historic corn mill. One of my favorite parts of this park, however, is the interactive educational center — the best in the county, I’d say. The high level of community involvement in this park (read about the Yates Mill Associates) is evident in the well kept grounds, its frequent programming, and even its Facebook page, which consistently keeps fans posted with natural and wildlife sightings from the park for those of us who want to enjoy from afar.

Don’t miss: The 30 minute guided tour of the mill Saturdays 1-3 p.m.

#2 – NCMA Museum Park

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Biking at NCMA Park

Here is yet another beautiful oasis in the midst of our busy city. The NCMA park is a spacious area of woodland trails and grassy vistas dotted with works of art by artists both native to NC (see: Vollis Simpson and Thomas Sayre) and nationally known (see: Roxy Paine‘s Dendroid). In early summer, the Rodin Sculpture Garden outside of the West Building, plays host to a blooming pond of water lilies. Wander down by the amphitheater to see up close the components of the park’s coolest secret: larger than life Picture This installation. Trails are good for both biking and walking. Take the main trail all the way to the pedestrian bridge over 440 for a dizzying walk and a reminder of the crowds rushing about their busy lives just outside the park while you relax.

Don’t miss: Pick out your favorite film or concert from the Museum’s summer line up to enjoy an outdoor show surrounded by lit up sculptures and fireflies over head.

#1 – Historic Oakview County Park

Our wedding at Oakview Park

Our wedding at Oakview Park

In my opinion, this park is one of the best kept secrets in Raleigh. Located next to Olivia
Rainy Library at the corner of 440 and Poole Road, it is not an area I often frequent, but the trip out there is always worth it. My husband and I love this park so much, we got married there!

This park will charm you out of your socks. While not as well maintained or glitzy as some of the others, the park packs a lot in a small area. The most noticeable feature at first is a beautiful, upward sloping pecan tree grove that perfectly shields the park from the noise of nearby 440, creating a quiet refuge for you to discover the many facets of this park. The kid-oriented education center focuses on local farming and life on this land in the 1800s. Wander past the rustic water tower through the historic buildings including the colonial style family home, cotton gin house, and more. You can even pick cotton from the cotton field during cotton season! Like other special parks in Raleigh, this one has a long history which includes many familiar local family names.oakview

 

Don’t miss: Meeting the park’s resident creatures: two friendly goats who will let you pet them and feed them (park-approved food of course!).

I’ll end with a thanks to Raleigh city, county, state, community, and business leaders who have worked and donated to establish and ensure on-going support for these fabulous public spaces. I’m just excited to see how the newest park in the works, Dix Park, has blossomed when we return to Raleigh!

Communicating global change

Poster design by Matt Abele

Poster design by Matt Abele

For my graduate Communication Campaigns course at NC State this past spring, a group of us developed a communication campaign proposal for the Southeast Climate Science Center‘s (SE CSC) inaugural Global Change Symposium. Recently, we checked in to find that the good folks at SE CSC were able to implement many of our tactics.

This Global Change Symposium, which will be held on August 28, is a first-time “meeting of the minds” of researchers, faculty, students, administrators at NC State. The SE CSC envisions this event as an opportunity to unite the various efforts across the campus to address global change.

What is global change, you say? Good question! It is a broad term meant to capture many of the complex changes occurring with regard to earth’s environmental, population, and food systems. Effectively conveying the importance and relevance of this broad concept was one of the fundamental challenges of the campaign.

 

From our proposal

The problem: Engage and persuade a diverse audience of stakeholders to attend the inaugural Global Change Symposium. Audiences included professors/researchers, administrators, and graduate students. SE CSC sought to engage an interdisciplinary group of researchers to unite the varying efforts of researchers across campus.

The solution: Create targeted messages for subgroups by type of audience and academic discipline using strategic channels to both inspire interest and justify benefits of attending the symposium.

As a team, we reviewed literature about communication campaigns, determined campaign goals, conducted focus group with stakeholders, developed messaging and communication assets, pretested messages with stakeholders, and created an evaluation plan. All of this culminated in a 80+ page campaign proposal which we presented to SE CSC in April.

Our team was delighted to find the SE CSC has utilized much of our campaign strategy and used materials we designed in their communication for the symposium on their website and emails, among others channels.

If you will be around Raleigh in August (sadly, I will not be!) I recommend you attend this exciting event to learn the latest about how NC State is addressing global change issues — and potentially get involved.

The Spring 2015 COM 529 Communication Campaigns course was taught by NC State Associate Professor of Communication Dr. James Kiwanuka-Tondo. Our team was made up of the following members: Matt Abele, Ben Lawson, Kelly Long, Tara Watterson, Alexa Wood.

Why this family’s obituary about their son’s death went viral

The Shephards, a NC Triangle family who tragically lost their 23-year-old son Clay Shephard in May, wrote an obituary that stated how he died and asked others to be vigilant. According to the Shephards, Clay died of a drug overdose. His obituary went viral.

Shephard

Clay Shephard via Apex Funeral Home

As I followed this story during the last few weeks, these questions arose: Why is this news? Why did this obituary in which a family simply admitted how their son died go viral? After all, an estimated 183,000 people worldwide died due to drug-related causes (mostly overdoses) in 2012, according to the World Drug Report 2014.

Still, obituaries for those who have died of a drug overdose rarely read like this one. As Alisa Wright Colopy, a former substance abuse therapist, discusses in the N&O article: “obituaries almost always use euphemisms to address overdoses.” Unless, of course, the deceased is a celebrity, in which case the family often doesn’t have the luxury of privacy. Case in point: coverage of 18-year-old Victory Siegel‘s (from Queen of Versailles) death the same week.

Pulling together your deceased loved one’s obituary usually happens within a cloud of grief and exhaustion. However, when your loved one’s death is due to an overdose, often there is an added layer of shock, confusion, and what ifs. My family and I know this from experience.

So, why not discuss addiction — and its related struggles for the deceased and the family — as openly as the Shephards? Because of the associated stigma. Substance use disorder and addiction continues to be seen among the larger public as a moral failing rather than the disease that it is.

The sad reality is that given this stigma, to admit in the obituary that your deceased loved one was an addict is almost more akin to announcing that he/she was a petty criminal rather than acknowledging that he/she suffered from a disease such as cancer. Having just lost a loved one, many families aren’t prepared to face the questions associated with acknowledging the overdose.

That is why this obituary went viral. The Shephards demonstrated generosity and courage by addressing their son’s struggle openly and honestly. To the Shephards — I’m sorry for your loss. I am grateful for your honesty and advocacy for those struggling with addiction and their families.

Thesis: How do doctors talk to patients about sensitive topics?

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been putting the final touches on my thesis research project. The question in the title of this post is the general question I’m pursuing with my thesis research.

A recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education reminded us that “despite decades of research, hundreds of campus task forces, and millions invested in bold experiments, college drinking remains as much of a problem as ever.” Thus, alcohol intervention conversations between medical providers and students about alcohol can be crucial to reducing problems associated with college binge drinking.

Presenting at my oral defense

Presenting at my oral defense

However, medical providers sometimes avoid alcohol-related conversations or brief alcohol interventions. So, I pursued with my thesis research the more specific question of, how do medical providers in university health centers communicate with patients about the sensitive topic of patient alcohol use?

Results from my qualitative analysis of 14 interviews with medical providers suggest that medical providers utilize the following communication techniques during alcohol-related conversations with patients:

Reading, writing, editing, reviewing, diagramming, etc etc etc!

The process: reading, writing, analyzing, editing, reviewing, diagramming, reflecting, etc etc etc!

  •  gathering more information (beyond screening data)
  • creating a nonthreatening environment
  • providing education about consequences
  • eliciting patient ownership
  • providing tips for harm reduction
  • continuing the conversation

Additionally, providers reported the following communication challenges to conducting brief alcohol interventions in this context:

  • choosing how and when to start the conversation
  • diagnosing a resistant population
  • establishing necessary rapport for a sensitive conversation
  • maintaining credibility despite uncertainty about the efficacy of interventions

With my poster at the graduate research symposium

I presented this research at the 10th annual NCSU Graduate Research Symposium earlier this month. My hope is that some of this research will be helpful to medical professionals in the field. I am also looking forward to submitting this research for publication. For now, I’m glad to be wrapping up this phase of my research!

With my committee at oral defense, from left to right: Chair, Dr. Deanna Dannels; Dr. Jessica Jameson; and Dr. Kami Kosenko

With my committee at oral defense, from left to right: Chair, Dr. Deanna Dannels; Dr. Jessica Jameson; me; and Dr. Kami Kosenko

I began this project more than a year ago and cannot be more excited to see it all come together! My thanks to the medical providers who met with me, the health center administrators who helped with this project, and to my committee.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day – here’s a condom

Yesterday, I visited my friends Leah Arnett and Heather Spencer of the NCSU Student Health Center, who have been helping me with my thesis research. They are in the midst of a fun valentine campaign to promote availability of condoms for students on campus. They asked if I’d be willing to help promote it by snapping a photo with their valentines package – a card with a cute note and several condoms. I said yes.

Leah knows I’m a big fan of the NCSU Student Health Center and the high quality medical care they provide for me and the entire NCSU student body. They even let me keep my valentine to give to my husband. Score! FB condoms I like the playfulness of this campaign. Hoping the students of NCSU will take advantage of this resource this valentines day!Thanks again to Leah Arnett for all her help on my thesis!

Top Five Thesis Memes

Like many other graduate students out there, I’m in the thick of writing my thesis this winter. I’m researching the challenges and opportunities faced by medical providers when discussing patient alcohol use with patients. More specifically, I’m looking at how university medical providers communicate with college-age patients regarding binge drinking alcohol. It’s

Of course half of the time when I’m “writing my thesis,” I’m looking at #thesismemes. I’d like to share my favorites with my fellow thesis-writing friends. Here are my top five favorites:

Naturally, a cat meme to kick us off:

Memethesis1

via thesis kitten

And of course, these classics:

Memethesis1

via thesis memes

Memethesis2

via thesis memes

Ah, the dreaded defense!

via dudelol

via dudelol

Now for my final pick. It is not actually a meme, but rather, my favorite song written about thesis-ing, John Sampson’s When I Write My Masters Thesis. Fellow thesis writes, I trust you’ll enjoy it!

How to tell your co-workers that you don’t drink

As the writer of a recent Time article about our research writes, it’s not always easy to explain why you’re turning down a drink at work-related social functions. Time4ab

My research conducted with Dr. Lynsey Romo and colleagues and published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, involved talking to working professionals who abstain from drinking about how they communicate with co-workers about their abstinence. Some participants reported being concerned about the negative impact of their alcohol abstinence.

So, how do you “spill the beans” to colleagues that you’re a non-drinker? How do you address it the heat of the moment at a social function where your colleagues are drinking and asking why you aren’t?

Well, our research revealed several ways that participants dealt with this.

Passing

First, avoiding the confrontation by “passing” as a drinker. As one participant reported, “I’ve held a beer bottle for hours, to the point where it’s warm.”

Being Forthright

Some participants came straight out with it about their non-drinking status, finding that it quickly settled the issue and prevented future conversations about the topic.

Using Excuses

Another option is to use vague excuses or explanations to diffuse the situation. First, choosing to emphasize abstinence from alcohol as a personal choice that applies only to you, not your judgement of others. Additionally, humor can be helpful here. One participant said she sometimes joked that she was allergic to alcohol when people questioned why she did not drink. Finally, as profiled in the Time article, health excuses are also an option:

  • “Not drinking is my secret to weight loss.” – Not drinking is the way you keep fit.
  • “It’s that pesky toe fungus again.” – Use of antibiotics prevents you from drinking.
  • “Sorry, I’ve got a marathon.” – Early mornings, training and physical prevent you from being able to drink.
  • “Ugh, migraines.” – Migraine medicine requires that you don’t drink.

Read more about our study, An Examination of How Professionals Who Abstain from Alcohol Communicatively Negotiate Their Non-drinking Identity, here.

Does workplace volunteering in groups improve employee relationships?

Image via Natesh Ramasamy

This is the general question I asked last spring when I undertook my first solo qualitative research paper. In fact, initial results from my study suggest yes, company-sanctioned group volunteer events fulfill the following relational functions for employees who volunteer together:

1. Create a positive experience together

Participants emphasized the positive nature of participating in company-sanctioned volunteer events with fellow employees. Volunteer events in the study often involved rituals to mark the occasion, such as wearing company t-shirts and photographing volunteer activities to share at the office. Brandy, an administrator at a hospital, said “I’ve yet to see a volunteer walk out [a volunteer session] with a frown on their face” upon participating in her company’s weekly reading tutoring volunteer program. Brandy said that her and other company volunteers have shared stories with one another about how the volunteer events serve as a “stress reducer,” adding that “if you’ve had that bad day, [after] going to [tutor], you’ll have a better day.”

2. Network to develop contacts in the company

Participants such as Robert, an engineer at a large company, discussed the social networking function of company volunteer events. Because his company employs more than 2,000 people at his location, Robert said he is “constantly seeing new faces” at the volunteer events he helps to organize. Robert added, “there are lots of examples of folks that I didn’t know before and now interact with at least personally… [Also] folks who I may have known who they were, didn’t know a whole lot about them, but had some tangential work connection before, and got to know them through volunteering. And then that connection was strengthened and we’ve ended up working in other ways together since then.”

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3. Build deeper relationships with known colleagues

Other participants expressed how volunteering together helped to add layers of depth and understanding to relationships with colleagues. Brad, who works as a designer at a small firm, said that after employees at his company met family members of their colleagues at a company-sanctioned volunteer event that was open to family, they tended to “look out for each other more.” Brad said that after that experience, employees are more likely to help another employee who is swamped with work so that his or her family life doesn’t suffer. Brad added that volunteering “makes your work relationship better because you just realize, oh, they’re people just like you, they go home to the same stuff just like you do and they have the same responsibilities and the same things they care about.”

4. Leverage company impact in the community

Additionally, participants reported that they preferred to volunteer with their fellow employees rather than alone because they can accomplish more together and with the backing of the company. Robert reported that he sees volunteering with this colleagues as an opportunity to “make a much bigger impact.” He added that groups of employees “make a difference” through the 1,000 hours of service his company logged for a local food bank in addition to helping attract financial sponsorships on part of the company through employee advocacy for the food bank.

5. Collectively build company culture

Finally, participants reported that they took pride in helping to shape and encourage a culture of giving back in the company through volunteering with colleagues and increasing the visibility and participation in the volunteer program. Describing the volunteer recruitment process, Sue said “[Company name] people are really good people and so everybody will pitch in,” reflecting how volunteerism helps define the employee workforce at her company.

Given that each of these functions are only accomplished through volunteering within a group of other employees (as opposed to volunteering alone), the relational nature of these functions is revealed. Based upon these results and previous research, I propose that volunteering together at company-sanctioned volunteer events helps to cultivate social capital within internal relationships among employees of the company who volunteer together.

I’m considering expanding this project to include more data so stay tuned! Want to read more about the method of this research or see more? Click here to download a PDF of the initial results.

Note: To protect privacy of those who participated in the study, participants, organizations, and companies involved are all kept confidential and listed with pseudonyms where relevant.