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The Power of Communicating Stuff

Doing stuff and communicating are the yin and yang energies of every social movement. Obviously, doing stuff is fundamental for creating cultural/political/economic change in the world. But there's no use doing stuff if nobody else finds out what's happening, why, and how to join in. And endless talk without action is but 'a tale told by an idiot'.

Communication is the relation through which influence, connection, solidarity, motivation, and inspiration grow and spread in any community of people. It's how any movement can spread, attract supporters and participants, and ultimately manifest change at whatever scale, whether revolutionary or evolutionary. With whom should we communicate? What are important messages and how should they be framed? How best to make the connections - web, print, events, interpersonal? These are some of the questions that make this changemaking work interesting and challenging. Yet sometimes it seems that in this movement there may be no less appreciated or more criticised work than communications.

The Transition Network is often the object of critique from motivated, well intentioned, and comms-experienced Transitioners, most commonly voiced as something like, 'there's no communications strategy'. It's true, there hasn't been.

On the other hand, while some may criticise the apparent stall in the spread and development of Transition initiatives in the UK, lack of mainstream media coverage, and so on, one must also recognise the phenomenal success. Transition, as a model and a brand, is being picked up by a diverse array of community groups around the world. Is this a result of what little communications have been developed or despite it?

Absent a formal communications strategy, co-founder Rob Hopkins has been a furiously busy communicator, having written several excellent books and churned out prodigious volumes of web content. Others have written books, too, but his are the core of the canon. He's a gifted and tireless speaker on 'the circuit', and has proven himself an effective and admired front man. For the last several months, his blog, Transition Culture, has been residing on TransitionNetwork.org, which itself has become much more editorial focused and content rich. In effect, he has been the de facto communications strategy.

One may assume that the critiques would be addressed and successes amplified with a clear and competent Transition Network communications strategy guiding activities, fund raising, investment, and so forth. It may soon be in development, now that the Transition Network has completed its 'draft strategy' document, which is currently available for comment. This document outlines four strategic roles for the Transition Network organisation, and identifies six strategic outcomes it hopes to deliver. As the draft proposes, its first role will be to 'hold the Transition source code', and the first outcome it will aim for is: 'people within and beyond the Transition movement hear a clear, consistent and compelling story of Transition that inspires them to act, connect and experiment.'

A communications strategy and plan will be developed. The identified strategic roles and intended outcomes imply that the commensurate communications effort will be robust. They also seem to imply a 'top down' attitude. What exactly does 'holding the Transition source code' mean in the context of an open source movement? Will there be an 'official' Transition narrative emanating from HQ to which initiatives must adhere? Nevertheless, a 'clear, consistent, and compelling' communications effort from Transition Network is exactly what many at the grass roots have said is needed to make Transition a visible landmark on the mainstream mindscape. Given adequate resources, there's no telling what might be accomplished.

Regardless what resources the Transition Network may eventually focus on communications, it very likely won't be enough. If the aim of this movement is a transition to a low-carbon, resilient, equitible social/political/economic system, surely it can only emerge from a widespread, de-centralised network of initiatives and organisations working at it from a diversity of perspectives. A singular voice isn't enough. What's needed is a loud and boisterous orchestra. This means lots of doing and communicating from initiatives at the grass roots is required. For many, this may be their 'step up moment'.

The Transition Free Press emerged from this grass roots and has enjoyed rave reviews as a quality publication. Developing our own media is vitally important, but they must also be supported. The TFP is being distributed in over 50 locations and is read by thousands, many who would otherwise never be exposed to key issues, analyses, and the abundant community-led solutions happening all over the country. The Transition Network has embraced it and is providing some much needed support. In the UK where there are official initiatives in over 200 communities, why isn't the TFP being distributed in all of them? Perhaps in time. And perhaps other entrepreneurial projects will emerge from the 'collective genius', too.

While communications on the national and international stage is important, in this movement the rubber meets the cycle path at the local, grass roots level. In Totnes, the 'doing stuff' has been powerful – no question. It's a small town punching way above it's weight. But for Transition Town Totnes, communications has had its ups and downs, and generally has been an ongoing topic of concern and frustration. Everyone recognises its importance, but it's a challenging beast that is easier to avoid than to confront.

The importance of communications, and the need for its ongoing, strategic, and skilful practice was brought home after a series of highly contentious campaigns were pursued in the town. In 2012, TRESOC was in the home stretch of its campaign to win planning approval for its community-owned wind farm project; a local sustainable transport group held a Car-free Day that closed the High Street for a few hours during a week day; and finally, the No to Costa campaign successfully kept the town coffee-franchise free. While TTT was not involved in the first two, and only marginally involved in the latter, these events contributed to a negative backlash that no one saw coming. Could a sustained and skilful communications effort have blunted this backlash? Might it have led to an improved Transition image with the wider community beyond the 'usual suspects', such as young people, conservatives – for that matter liberals, too – faith-based groups, anti-wind energy, Bridgetown, etc.? The answer is obvious.

After much talk about the need for a communications group, Sophia (aka Bob), initiated a meeting to start up the group. After a few meetings, the group has progressed through it's 'storming' phase and is on to 'norming'. There are some pitfalls that have kept this kind of group forming and sustaining itself in the past, and instigators here are keen to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Two big challenges to overcome at the beginning would probably be common to every community group trying to master the art of communications. One is the 'ready, fire, aim' pattern. Jumping in and 'doing stuff' is the modus operandi of many a community organiser and activist. And it works well - for doing stuff, but not communications, at least not in the long run. A successful comms group will have spent quality time investigating and considering goals and objectives, audience groups, values and frames, key messages, and so on. Those factors would then inform what to do and how. Another common challenge is 'design by committee'. In Transition circles, it's common for non-hierarchical, inclusive processes to drive project design and planning. This is useful, but only to up to the point where it's not. This is where remembering the permaculture principle of 'relinquishing control' comes in handy. Not everyone will agree on a particular use of words or colour. It should be remembered that often in creative work there can be many possible effective approaches.

That said, the nature of the beast and the fact that so much of Transition work is under resourced, it may not be possible to follow best practice. The lure of short cuts and quick wins is always present in a busy diary of important things to do. The TTT communications group is meeting again in a week or two to progress their agenda and will no doubt continue to struggle with these challenges.

Hal has suggested an analysis of aims and audience groups to guide planning:

  • to recruit skills, talent and expertise to specific projects ( I.e. targeted recruitment)
  • to create positive awareness of our work in the wider community
  • to re-invigorate the 'internal' TTT community

In addition, several in the group are familiar with Max-Neef's model of fundamental human needs, non-violent communication, network theories, and Common Cause's Values and Frames Handbook. Several also have professional communications experience and Naresh has suggested a process from a professional branding expert to help the group evaluate new TTT strap line proposals.

Hopefully, this group will sustain itself and produce good results. If so, there may be best practices to share, especially if they work in a resource poor environment of volunteer labour. In any case, this will be an interesting year for TTT with a stronger voice and more visible presence in the town. It may be the same for the wider network of initiatives, too. The Transition Network's eagerly anticipated communication plan should provide a boost to every initiative and to the movement overall.

 

Images: social network visualisation. By Calvinius [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Rob Hopkins. Photo by Tulane Publications, via Flickr Commons; TFP co-founder Mark Watson with armful of TFPs, image courtesy TFP; Max-Neef's fundamental human needs.

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