Narrative Competency: The Power of Intentional Communication

  May 7, 2020

As one of seven key organizational factors in PartnersGlobal’s Resiliency+ Framework, narrative competency represents a key differentiator between organizations that can adapt and respond to change, such as the transition to a post-Covid-19 context, and those that cannot.

Resilient civil society organizations understand the power of intentional communications to improve the level of understanding between themselves, the public and other actors in the civic space. To communicate more effectively with those who think differently, an organization must be willing to explore how others make meaning of complex issues and policies, and possess the ability to self-reflect on their own cognitive biases that they bring to the table. Only then will organizations be equipped to communicate freely without implicitly assuming the public understands its issues in the same way that peers in the civil society sector do.

Get a quick explanation of Narrative Competency from PartnersGlobal President & CEO Julia Roig below.

Below are the three main elements of Narrative Competency and key resources for each.

1. Engaging with the Narrative

Engaging with narratives involves analyzing the way in which public messaging is positively or negatively affecting an organization’s mission and sector, and then designing strategies to shift the public’s understanding and support for the organization’s issues. This is not just a leadership skill needed among the organization’s executive team and communications managers – it is a foundational building block that is beneficial to all civil society organizations, whether or not they have a dedicated communications capacity.

In the PartnersGlobal Engaging Narrative for Peace Guide, narrative is defined as, “a cognitive framework that resides at the level of our unconscious minds, that allows human beings to make meaning of the world.” It’s how we code information and make sense of what we are receiving.

Frames are “the subconscious internal schemas our brains rely on to help us to make sense of the information we receive, interpreted by our own experiences.” When we take in new information about a complex social or political issue for example, our brain must decide what information is important and what is not important. We do this by identifying patterns, creating categories, and relying on stereotypes.

A new report by Alice Sachrajda and Lena Baumgartner titled “More Than Words” synthesizes learning and insights from various efforts led by civil society change agents on narrative change, framing initiatives, and new approaches to strategic communications. It also explores the interconnected nature of attitudes to the issues civil society works on and sets out challenges and areas for future development.

The FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that advances civil society’s capacity to influence public discourse on social and scientific issues in positive ways, has been offering research and resources for 20 years on how narratives are being framed on important issues and how to reframe those narratives. Recently, FrameWorks assembled a list of tools for Framing Covid-19 to help advocates and experts be heard and understood in a time of global crisis.

The Workshop from New Zealand also published this guide titled “How to Talk about Covid-19: Narratives to Support Good Decision-Making and Collective Action.” The first half of the guide gives an overview of the type of thinking we want to avoid, thoughts we want to surface, and identifies the strategic communications tools to do this. The second half provides more detail on those tools and offers examples to ground them.

One important component of prepping a narrative is a careful review of the lexicon being used.  Civil society organizations must understand their audiences and develop coherent messages that resonate effectively within their target groups.  Too much insider-lexicon (or jargon) can thwart an organization’s communications goals if its audiences can’t understand the meaning. Overseas Development Institute offers this excellent online Toolkit for Successful Communication.”

Ella Saltmarshe, Co-founder of The Long Time Project, The Comms Lab, and The Point People, offers 8 Tips for Framing Covid-19, and posits, How we talk about COVID-19 affects how we respond to it.”

And Matt Golding, Director at Rubber Republic, focuses on ways to translate feelings into languageHe notes, “behavior is governed by feelings more than by thoughts… If we can identify a feeling our audience already have and amplify it so it doesn’t become overshadowed by a related fear, we can create a confidence in people that positive change is possible.

2. Crisis Communications

Effective crisis communication requires the capacity to anticipate situations and deploy specialized messaging, outreach, and communication strategies to protect and defend an organization from the impacts of shifts in the external environment.

One of the first steps an organization should take to prepare for when a crisis hits is to have a crisis communications plan ready. Click here for a sample template that any organization can use to devise a crisis communications plan that suits their needs and contextual dynamics.

This crisis communications template helps to:

  • Define and assign a crisis team
  • Outline roles and responsibilities of the crisis team
  • Detail steps to take in a crisis event
  • Indicate who to contact, resources that are available, and procedures to follow

But let’s face it. Most nonprofits have little time to spend on preventive measures that will distract them from their daily work. In an effort to support the nonprofit community’s preparedness efforts NPower analyzed numerous disaster preparedness resources and curated them to suit nonprofit realities in their report, “Communications, Protection and Readiness: A Nonprofit Guide to Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery.”

Crisis communications is also critically important for emergency fundraising. In times of uncertainty or rapid change, civil society may find themselves in need of quick injections of financial support. Wayne Murray, Strategy Director at Audience Fundraising and Communications, gives his five pointers for writing an emergency appeal that will keep people connected with your organization and help to raise funds in the short term. He argues, “On the other side of this crisis, we’ll be braver, more agile, and have a clearer focus on who we actually are, and how we connect with our audiences.”

3. Adopting New Technologies

Adopting and integrating new technologies into intentional communications plans and narrative strategies is a must in today’s rapidly changing technological world. We communicate differently and through more modes and mediums than ever. By adopting new technologies, an organization will be more effective in reaching key audiences and shield its staff and its stakeholders from potential attacks in new media spaces. It is also critical to support and protect its technology operations infrastructure. Critical to the adoption of these tools and technologies is the digital literacy needed to navigate and communicate with accuracy and safety.

Protecting the Digital Space

The Resilient Organization: A Guide to IT Disaster Recovery from TechSoup is an excellent resource for anyone working in civil society who carries out work online. No prior expertise in IT is required! The guide is designed for those who have been tasked with moving their organization through the recovery process after a natural or man-made disaster or crisis has struck.

Additional tools from Security In A Box are also useful, as are some of the resources found at The Center for Digital Resilience and

In addition to civil society competency, in 2019 the Media Impact Forum published “A holistic approach to operational and digital security” by Rowan Reid of Internews. The piece highlights the need for philanthropies and funders to understand and support digital safety among their grantees and partners.

Leveraging Technology

How we communicate with internal and external audiences is changing as a result of this current Covid-19 crisis and will undoubtedly continue to change as new crises arise. Now is the time to harness the power of new technologies to support our work in this new reality.

Below are several resources to help make this transition to new technologies easier.