Making a Difference: Stories for Social Change

February 4, 2019


With almost a decade’s worth of experience in the nonprofit sector, I’m no stranger to that feeling of triumph and frustration warring simultaneously while doing big work in a small community. Triumph for every media story published, social post shared and client made happy — followed by frustration at how little the needle seems to move.

For many of us working in public relations, communicating and promoting a cause isn’t new, but it can often feel frustrating due to the marginal impact felt in the community, especially for those organizations with tight budgets and small teams.

Promoting initiatives and pushing for change can be slow going. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With more agencies, corporations and even nonprofits finding value in growing and developing corporate responsibility initiatives and programs focused on giving back to the community, advocating for social good is becoming more of the norm. And for those of us sharing the stories of what these organizations are doing, the potential for communicators to serve as the voice for social change is huge.

But how do communicators serve as storytellers in a way that makes an impact that is measurable and sustainable? The key is going back to the basics.

Communicate need.

A good story has a beginning. The first step is determining the “so what” factor — answering the question, “Why should people care?” It isn’t always apparent how important or timely a certain issue or solution is, so it’s the communicator’s job to relay that to the audience. Using metrics, studies, interviews and other factual content can provide potential supporters with a basis of information, directing them to understand the need you are striving to fill.

Now that you’ve identified the problem and how your organization, team or company is striving to make an impact, how can others get involved and show their support? Give your audience an avenue to take action.

Like when American entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie was traveling in Argentina and discovered the hardships of those living without shoes. His solution? To build a sustainable for-profit company that would provide shoes to children in need all over the world. Since its start in 2006, TOMS Shoes has provided over 60 million pairs of shoes worldwide. Through its website, blog and social media, TOMS Shoes makes a solid connection between a customer’s purchase and where that money goes.

Communicating the need, or establishing why people should care and lend their support, makes all the difference. In sum, communicate the social or economic issues you are taking on and why what you’re doing matters.

Share the story.

A good story has an audience. Identify who the target audience is and where they live. It is imperative to communicate the “why” behind the initiative and its potential impact in the community in order to establish and maintain support.

How can people support something they aren’t aware of — or worse, how can they help fix a problem they don’t know exists? It isn’t enough to just develop a website, blog or social media page. It is essential to drive the target audience to these resources through engaging content distributed where that audience spends their time.

If we go back to the TOMS Shoes example, a person willing to purchase a pair of shoes for $50 or more now has an option to give a pair of shoes to someone in need while fulfilling a need of his or her own. It is making that story available to the end consumer that ensures TOMS Shoes’ success.

Develop partnerships.

Good stories are shared. In order to initiate real change, there must be diversity at the table. Sharing ideas, experiences and connections through collaboration with other companies, organizations and professionals can lead to making a much larger impact than working alone.

Real change is often stagnated by fragmentation in the community. Are there other organizations working toward similar goals? If so, then working together and pooling resources may be more beneficial than working independently and tapping into the same pool of supporters and stakeholders.

Often other professionals and organizations are more than willing to share their stories, especially when a partnership has the potential to lead to more success. Pay attention to the goals of organizations serving similar audiences but with varied missions. There may be ways to collaborate — providing more services for the same audience through one consistent message.

Mediate conversations.

Good stories garner engagement. After communicating the need for support,  sharing the story directly to the target audience and partnering with others also doing good work, pay attention to the audience’s reaction. Communication requires two actions: distributing information and listening to how people react to that information.

Active listening is key — whether it is through digital tools like comments and social media posts or through in-person focus groups or feedback sessions. Understanding how supporters, customers and stakeholders think and feel allows communicators to anticipate needs and improve other aspects of a business, ensuring further success in the future.

Don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. It is a useful tool, not only for increasing support and sales, but also to help the mission evolve along with its audience, the world and the issue at hand. Allow the story to evolve over time and then share that change with the world.

This model has worked so well for TOMS Shoes that, in addition to shoes, customers can now purchase coffee and eyewear, expanding the resources it’s distributing to those in need.

Make an impact.

Good stories make change. While TOMS Shoes is an obvious example of a business working to do social good while also contributing to the bottom line, there are companies and organizations around the world dedicated to doing the same thing. One main reason for their success is due to communication and public relations. From establishing a website and blog with in-depth information on who they serve and how, to engaging social media with updates on how others can get involved, TOMS Shoes drives traffic to their store while communicating impact through a variety of tools.

PR professionals are the storytellers — the communicators who allow organizations to operate transparently and ethically, sharing an organization’s value, work and impact with the public and its stakeholders. It’s an ever-evolving industry, adjusting to new technology and digital storytelling tools available in a variety of ways and at all different skill levels.

By communicating need, sharing the story with the target audience, developing partnerships and participating in the conversation through active listening, communicators can serve as the megaphone for those who may not have a voice.

We can amplify the good others are doing to make a difference in the world.

Allie McLary

Allie McLary is the senior marketing and communications specialist at SET SEG School Insurance Specialists, working with Michigan’s public schools to provide educators affordable and quality health care. With nearly 10 years serving in the nonprofit sector, she works to give a voice to the good guys so we can improve the world together.


Julia Landon says:

I really enjoyed this article. As a public relations student, the way you broke down the ways to ensure the impact made is sustainable and measurable is very useful. It can be very easy to get caught up in the details, but these five points really boil down what is the most important in making a difference as a communicator. -Julia Landon, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

Feb. 8, 2019

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