Peter Gilheany.jpg

I work for Forster Communications, the social change PR agency, and helping to inspire different audiences to engage in social change has been our business since our inception 21 years ago. In that time, a lot of our work has called for us to reach out to people and communities on the margins of society. They have been given many different labels over the years – the marginalised, the hard to reach, vulnerable groups, NEETs, at risk etc – and they are often the target for state-funded initiatives looking to deliver social change such as increased employment, improved health and greater community cohesion. We have built up a lot of experience of what works and what doesn’t in this area, and here are the three main lessons we have learnt:

Involve the audience

Whatever label they have been grouped under, the target audiences for many social change campaigns are often talked about rather than involved in the conversation. They are the experts on themselves, and you and any attempt at engaging them will do much better if it is rooted in their experience and reality and has involved them in its creation. You’ll never get real insights simply sitting in a room with colleagues and “experts” like us. We ran a campaign a number of years ago on smoking cessation in Tower Hamlets, reaching out to 1st generation Bangladeshi men. When we involved them in developing the campaign, it turned out they were completely fatalistic about their own health so traditional health messages wouldn’t work. What they cared about was being present at key moments in the lives of their children, especially daughters, such as graduation and marriage. So we ran a campaign where we literally stubbed them out of pictures taken at key moments like that. We would never have come to have insight on our own.

Get used to failure

Whisper it, but most social change campaigns fail primarily because social change takes ages, is really hard to deliver and, crucially, to sustain. There is often either a mismatch between the resource available for a campaign and the impact it is hoping to make, or expectations about the scale and speed of change that can be delivered is far too optimistic. Social change is best viewed as a journey where you will also regress as well as progress.

Set the right targets

Related to the above point, in a system where many aspects of the delivery of social change campaigns are outsourced to multiple agencies, it is very easy for the wrong targets to be set and even for some of those targets creating perverse incentives that will hinder social change. In the early noughties, there was a significant ramping up of government involvement in social change campaigns through the now-defunct Central Office of Information (COI). Many of those campaigns were focused on getting people to access a service, call a helpline or visit a website. Far too few of them were concerned with what happened after that point, which is where the hardest bit of social change needs to take place, the conversion of a single positive act into sustainable behaviour change. If you are part of a bigger picture delivering a social change campaign, you need to be aware of how the parts are supposed to fit and, however hard it might be to do so, challenge any targets that are set without regard for that bigger picture.

Peter Gilheany is Director of Forster Communications