Five ways to strengthen our narrative rapid response power
By Erin Potts & Tracy Van Slyke
The Muslim travel ban. Families separated at the border. Black Lives Matter. Black Panther. #MeToo. The launch of Times Up at the 2018 Golden Globes. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant. Heartbreaking days like January 6, 2021, and hopeful days of democratic transition, such as January 20, 2021.
For artists and organizations committed to the rights of BIPOC, women, trans, queer, and disabled communities, the last four years have had us slingshotting in defense from one attack — on our communities, on our existence, on the very idea of who belongs in this country — to the next. Other times, major cultural experiences have offered a chance to inject or reinforce a vision about the country we can become with millions of people.
None of these moments are the same. At some we grieve. Others we cheer. All require members of the pop culture for social change field — artists, social justice movements, entertainment leaders and companies, cultural strategists, cultural organizers, researchers — to flex our narrative superpowers. Because these are the critical moments when millions of people are suddenly open to, or recommit to, ideas about how our society operates and who belongs in it.
Rapid response work is a critical part of transforming the narrative and cultural waters we swim in everyday. And while our work goes hand in hand with strategic communications, the pop culture for social change field has a specialized role to play in connecting immediate storytelling to the formation of people’s beliefs and behaviors and to a long-term narrative vision for our country. But for every rapid response moment that we are able to activate quickly, there are dozens we can’t seize.
For example, in a recent conversation with the Pop Culture Collaborative, Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party pointed out how the GameStop stock trading frenzy in late January (when small online investors exposed the inequities of the stock market by buying shares in a struggling company and shooting its value through the roof) was a rapid response narrative opportunity to tell a different story about our country’s distorted imbalance of economic power and to seed a new vision of what economic justice means for everyone. Unfortunately, we did not have the capacity as a field to seize this narrative framing opportunity.
Rapid response work is a critical part of transforming the narrative and cultural waters we swim in everyday…But for every rapid response moment that we are able to activate quickly, there are dozens we can’t seize.
What’s holding us back? In addition to pure exhaustion, every rapid response possibility requires background infrastructure: relationships, audience research, shared narrative strategy, distribution channels, and more. Almost every rapid response moment finds our field reinventing that infrastructure from scratch.
Which leads to the question: What support and infrastructure does the pop culture for social change field need to be ready for rapid response moments?
Over the past year, we worked to answer that question.
In 2020, the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic resource and funder learning community working at the intersection of pop culture and social justice, partnered with Erin, a 25-year cultural strategist veteran who has developed foundational language, critical cultural research, and evaluation practices in the pop culture for social change field, to interview more than a dozen cultural strategists, artists, entertainment industry leaders, and others who work in pop culture for justice; looked at patterns in Collaborative narrative-focused grants for rapid response, and studied several rapid response moments, including Times Up, Families Belong Together, #OscarsSoWhite, and Black Lives Matter.
Her report, “The Speed of Trust, Accelerating Narrative Change Through Rapid Response in Pop Culture,” identified several ways to make sure the pop culture field is ready when the next rapid response moment arrives:
1. Define our terms and expectations.
One of the biggest barriers for the field to more effectively engage in narrative-focused rapid response is the lack of a common definition and understanding. What is narrative-based rapid response? How does it work? Just how rapid is rapid response? What opportunities can it offer? What moments rise to needing a pop culture-level rapid response campaign response (and who decides)? How does rapid response connect to long-term narrative strategies? We began to answer some of these questions; others require more discussion, testing, and evaluation.
First, we were able to narrow down a timeframe. All who were interviewed were clear that rapid response was defined by short-term goals. There was also agreement that the timeframe is a few days, or weeks at most.
Maya Bourdeau of FrameShift, is studying “persuasion windows,” a marketing term for moments when people are most open to new information, changing their minds, and changing their behaviors. “I suspect that you want to respond the day of or the [day after an event] … day three maybe,” she says. “Windows are short before people harden their frames.” However, she notes, a few days can stretch to a few weeks because it takes a while for social discussions to build. “Everyone hears about it at a different time,” she said. “Rapid response is when they have their moment of hearing about it. That is what draws out the moment to a few weeks.”
What’s often true is that a rapid response moment can last only a couple of days, and then quiet down until the next big splash. Others are transformed by organizers from rapid response moments into long-term campaigns, like the response to immigrant children being separated at the border transitioning into the Families Belong Together campaign, or in response to the systematic killing of Black people by law enforcement, a hashtag that morphed into the Movement for Black Lives.
In addition we found that there are two different types of narrative-based rapid response:
- Defensive rapid-response campaigns are a coordinated response to attacks on communities. These campaigns include, for example, Black Lives Matter, Families Belong Together, the Muslim travel ban, and the response to Covid-19. This type of rapid-response campaign can often move from defensive short-term to long-term if needed.
- Opportune rapid-response efforts are tied to a moment of cultural or political importance that someone else is organizing. Examples include how racial justice organizers strategically used the release of Black Panther, #OscarsSoWhite, or the gender justice movement connected with the Time’s Up open letter and the Golden Globes to forward long-term narrative strategies.
We also suspect that there is a third type that not only responds to moments but creates them. This kind of proactive rapid-response capacity does not yet exist consistently, but several interviewees indicated this is the direction that we need to move towards through better infrastructure and planning. (See section 4, below, for more.)
2. Expand mutual trust and coordination.
Our research found that narrative shifts in rapid-response moments are often achieved by multiple individuals and institutions working in coordination and at a very fast pace. This means prior trust among them is crucial. As one interviewee, Tracy Sturdivant, CEO of The League, said, rapid-response campaigns move at “the speed of trust.” Existing relationships help facilitate success in coordinating multiple players, which means that more should be done to expand trust in “off moments.” This can happen through things like working on other projects together, small working groups, and once face-to-face meetings are possible again, creating deliberate spaces at conferences.
The range of individuals and organizations working on rapid-response narrative campaigns is also critical. Social justice movements will always be a crucial partner in a narrative-focused campaign. There is also a wide range of artists, producers, managers, and influencers from multiple industries — music, television, social media, visual arts, and elsewhere — who are in touch with the narrative needs and creative opportunities of that specific rapid response moment. In addition, our research also highlighted that certain forms of narrative expression are quicker than others. For instance, it takes less time to create a cartoon or visual image than it does to create long-form narratives like TV shows and films. So it is important to be strategic about the types of storytellers we work with in preparing for rapid response moments.
We also need to be savvy on what channels, from Facebook to YouTube, from TikTok to Clubhouse, we will need to get our rapid response narratives out, based on the audiences we are trying to reach and the response behaviors we are hoping to spark.
3. Be prepared with research, insights, and narrative frameworks.
Previously conducted audience research and shared core narratives can both speed up our ability to launch a rapid response narrative-based campaign and make it more effective. We need to know ahead of time where these audiences consume stories, what they value, who they listen to. The field does not yet have this type of research available, and there is much work to be done to create narrative strategies informed by that research. Pooling existing audience research that companies and researchers already have can be immensely helpful to our readiness.
All rapid-response campaigns have their own distinctive issue(s), community focus, and calls to actions, and at their core, can draw from a shared narrative framework about who we are, and who we can become, as a people. These shared, evergreen narrative frameworks include Becoming America from the Pop Culture Collaborative and “The Storytellers’ Guide to Changing the World,” from Collaborative grantee Culture Surge, which can provide a blueprint for storytelling in rapid response moments. In fact, the Storytellers’ Guide was written for a rapid response moment — the 2020 presidential election — as a way to give storytellers better narrative grounding in their creative brief. You can view the content gallery here.
4. Move from responding and anticipating to creating rapid-response moments.
As noted above (in 1. “Define our terms and expectations”), pop culture as a field needs to develop better skills in anticipating response moments and develop proactive rapid responses, particularly how we can lean into opportune moments and not just defensive ones. We also need to consider when and how to use these opportunities.
Creating rapid response moments is critical because these proactive moments may be better suited to narrative shifts in both the short and long run, because we have more control of the narrative than when we simply counter bad ones of someone else’s making. Several of the creatives we talked to mentioned that they want to work in a more proactive and positive way on rapid-response campaigns that shift narrative because the defensive work, especially the constant barrage of it over the past four years, has affected their mental and physical health and ability to create.
5. Invest in our teams to be resilient and ready.
As diverse as the pop culture for the social justice field is, every community, organization, and company in the field probably shares an important value: that our people are our greatest asset to creating change. Rapid response is a type of organizing that takes a lot of energy and resources from us as individuals. In some cases, it comes suddenly, when we least expect it. It is almost always on top of an already immense amount of work already being done. Our teams need to be ready and resilient.
While there are a few other philanthropic resources for rapid response (Emergent Fund, North Star Fund, Third Wave Fund, Solidaire, and Urgent Action Fund, for example), the Pop Culture Collaborative is unique due to its support of narrative-focused rapid response. The dearth of other narrative-focused rapid response funding resources reinforces scarcity and exhaustion by field members who are suddenly juggling both new fundraising needs and designing for these high-intensity rapid response moments, in addition to their ongoing work. Due to the structures and needs of many individual funders, it is often hard for them to move these fast-paced grants. But instead of looking at this as a roadblock, we need to see how this problem provides an opening to reimagining how narrative rapid response grantmaking could occur.
In addition, field members having the space to invest in a culture of learning, resting, and celebrating wins can help manage energy. Policies that prioritize team access to mental health and wellness and added team capacity will help. Finally, and most pragmatically, we need to develop training and curriculums that can help ensure that people have the skills for these moments.
All together, this means investing in infrastructure that exists between rapid response moments. In “Speed of Trust,” we recommend:
- Developing a cultural table dedicated to building out shared infrastructure, knowledge, narrative, and coordination between and at critical rapid-response moments. As part of or in coordination with this table, key activities includes mapping, pooling, and translating key audience research; deepening and expanding our relationships with artists, managers, and producers across multiple entertainment industries and forging partnerships with digital platforms and values-aligned brands; and creating new tools and trainings to build strategy and skills for narrative-based rapid response campaigns.
- Creating a pooled, funder-field managed fund. Underlying much of the Collaborative’s long-term thinking is reimagining and expanding investment streams into the field while realigning the traditional decision-making structures that currently determine resourcing. We think that rapid response, narrative-focused grantmaking presents a dual opportunity to experiment with new forms of grantmaking, and more strategically, and efficiently move money into the field for these time-sensitive moments. The Pop Culture Collaborative is the only fund that provides grants 365 days per year, funding pop culture–level narrative responses to acute political and cultural moments. The Collaborative can’t, and shouldn’t, be the only funding decision-maker for these crucial narrative shifting moments. A pooled fund where key decision-makers include funders and field members could operate with a very short application process and rely on expanded, collective expertise to approve applications based on their knowledge of the issues, assessment of the narrative landscape, and understanding of various field members’ expertise and needs. In addition, this pooled fund could support a system of grants for a rapid-response moment to support the coordinated activity of multiple social movement organizations, artists, strategists, and other partners versus one grant to one field member at a time. The Collaborative is committed to explore, and test, how this model could operate.
Click here to request a copy of the report “Speed of Trust: Advancing Narrative Change Through Rapid Response in Pop Culture.”