In 2020, just after the pandemic hit Canada and before the eventual fall of WE Charity, Amanda Maitland, a Black former employee of the organization made headlines for her accusation that WE’s near all-white staff changed her firsthand account of racism in a speech she was hired to deliver at the charity’s signature youth empowerment event.
In a meeting, she was presented with the edited version. She said it was a “watered-down” version of its original, only touching on WE-deemed acceptable topics of cornrows and the Oscars, with a lightened language that skewed the telling of her real lived experience.
It was her story, and yet it was redlined by someone else to tell her what was acceptable to speak about. The approach did not elevate her voice, it attempted to silence it; this caused real harm to the storyteller, evidenced in her media interviews. Then, the fallout impacted the organization’s reputation.
Stories are a powerful medium for social change. As communications and public relations professionals, they’re like a unit of measure for our work; the ability to persuade, engage and inspire action comes down to what story is told, when and where. We drive organizational narratives and rely on firsthand accounts to show impact through testimonials, case studies and speeches like Amanda’s.
We have the power to determine what story is told, but we also have a responsibility to the storyteller. In my research including conversations with storytellers and communication leaders, I’ve compiled these six guidelines for engaging people with lived or living experiences, to offer more impactful storytelling for your organization.
1. Ensure the engagement is mutually beneficial.
When working to incorporate the stories of people with lived and living experiences in your impact storytelling, first consider what benefits will be offered to the person in exchange for their story. Honorariums, gift cards and participatory supports like travel costs and meals should be included in your budget. In the absence of dollar-value offerings, such as an engagement of media interviews, provide added value in terms of media training and profile-building opportunities. Beginning with reciprocity as a guiding value can ensure that your practice is mutually beneficial to your organization and the storyteller.
2. Collaborate on shared goals.
Your collaboration process begins in the ideation stage, not in the editing stage. Collaboration is the work of ensuring your goals for the impact storytelling project are shared and well understood. Social justice circles often reference the saying, “Nothing about us without us.” When determining your project scope, the storyteller should be included in that discussion.
In a pre-interview, ask the storyteller clarifying questions and get to know the story from their perspective. Discuss ways a story can be told and how a story can be leveraged in your impact storytelling strategy. If your organization is seeking a mention, discuss the potential for impact through donations or further support to audiences to come to an understanding of why this is important.
3. Be transparent about story usage and permissions.
Be clear and forthcoming about how, when and where their story will be shared to the best of your ability; then be clear about what you do not know or what is outside of your control, as it is important for the storyteller to understand both the rewards and risks. It is a good practice to clarify how long the story will be active in your campaigns, and also to share the difficulties in recalling a story once it has been released on social media, so they can understand the lasting influence of the engagement. Lastly, always seek out additional approval for the use of their likeness in visual assets or other campaigns not initially discussed, even if you have a signed contractual agreement.
4. Build trusting relationships with storytellers.
The key to meaningful engagement is to invest your time in building trusting relationships. Even with a contract that determines rights for the use of their story, your engagement is not transactional, so make sure you are supporting the storyteller before and after the story gathering process. In your formal or informal agreement, allow flexibility in the process for feedback and reviews. A final review would provide time in your schedule for the storyteller to review, edit and further clarify their story before you publish if possible. This step ensures everyone is comfortable and approving of their own representation before sharing it with external audiences.
5. Hold space for difficult narratives.
A storyteller can feel vulnerable and exposed when sharing their lived and living experience, so it is important to hold space for them. Recounting difficult experiences can be emotional, and a storyteller can be caught off guard by their response. A caring approach can ensure trust and safety is assured. It is important to listen well and acknowledge through body language and eye contact that they have your full attention and acceptance. Slow down your typical approach and allow more time for the story to unfold, as narratives of lived and living experiences can deviate from timelines. Affirm the guidelines you have set, including sharing the story in advance for their review, and letting them know that you will handle their story with care.
6. Share the impact of their story.
Some of the most important work in the engagement is done after you have collected the story. Express your gratitude for their engagement first as a follow up, and then even in a personalized card. When the story has been published, ensure you provide any assets they can use for their own purposes and share any feedback or results you have gathered about the story to show progress toward a shared goal. This affirms to the storyteller that the engagement was meaningful.
These guidelines are not exhaustive or complete, but are intended to incite further discussion about the power and responsibility communications and PR departments have in impact storytelling.
When it comes to reconciliation and equity work, communications and public relations, like any field, requires a reevaluation of our practices in how stories are leveraged, told and communicated on behalf of the storytellers. As holders of the pen for organizational narratives, we are in a prime position to affect change — one story at a time.
Lindsay Kwan has a Master of Arts degree in Professional Communications from Royal Roads University, where she won the Asper Foundation Communication Award for her community involvement. She specializes in public relations and strategic communications for purposeful brands and leads organizational storytelling. She is also a creative non-fiction writer and trained editor.