As the nature of conflict and violence continues to evolve around the globe, so must our approaches to working with countries to support their stabilization needs. As the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability notes, “The world needs cooperation and investments in peacebuilding and prevention more than ever.” Donor-funded public engagement products can typically focus on social and behavior change communications (SBCC) in sectors such as health and early childhood education. However, there is an opportunity to utilize entertainment-focused products to drive social impact in the stabilization sector—using television shows and radio dramas to counter inflammatory disinformation or a character-driven movie to increase social cohesion efforts. Dexis and our projects see exciting opportunities for the development sector to utilize social impact entertainment (SIE) to contribute to stabilization objectives.
For over five years now, Dexis has employed a “laughs and likes” approach to social programming to help combat the impact of disinformation. We’ve also seen how SIE can change attitudes about youth and specifically address issues around stabilization. For example, Hotel Rwanda, a story-led film focusing on the Rwandan genocide, brought atrocity prevention narratives to the mainstream, engaging humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International in publicity efforts. This cross-engagement coupled with a story-led narrative drew audiences to opportunities to fight for international action and relief efforts in Darfur, Sudan at the peak of the genocide.
Based on Dexis’ experiences across sectors and regions, four key approaches help make social impact entertainment effective in supporting stabilization efforts around the world:
- Use Effective Storytelling to Reach Audiences
The story must come first, specifically content that elicits emotions. If your audiences aren’t truly engaged, all your investment of time and resources to affect attitudes and behaviors will fall flat. Social impact content is embedded within entertainment programming, so that audiences consistently connect with the messaging over longer periods of time. In conflict-affected areas and other settings where stakeholders are disengaged or mistrustful, a well-crafted story can help to shift people’s views and consider different perspectives. Storytelling can help people examine their roles and potential contributions to society, celebrate peacemakers and others already creating positive change, and aid communities in envisioning collective pathways towards a greater good.
- Engage Audiences with Formats They Already Know and Trust
You have to meet audiences where they are. What radio shows and TV programming do they currently follow? And how do these vary among different segments of the population? For example, do rural communities have access to television to the same degree as urban centers? Do young people seek entertainment online more than older adults? Understanding the rates of audience engagement with different formats and what programming is already in play will help you to determine whether to create new SIE content or to insert key messaging into existing entertainment programs.
- Leverage Partnerships to Maximize Entertainment Value and Social Impact
Partnerships are essential. In our work, Dexis helps facilitate SIE partnerships. Rather than directly providing content, our teams identify local and regional talent—agencies and individuals who understand the context and complexities involved. Our role is to forge productive partnerships among local content creators, experts, and media houses to generate, test, and distribute SIE that leads to attitudinal and behavior change. As a complement to in-country expertise, we offer international best practices that our partners can adapt to local audience’s tastes and media production realities.
- Measure Everything
Effective storytelling requires a deep and nuanced understanding of stakeholders’ interests and tastes, including how these can shift over time. As such, implementers need to quickly get beyond “bean-counting,” i.e., who watched what, to examine impact and preferences. Analyzing target audiences via local research and measuring partners can help determine when content resonates with what audiences actually want and whether core messages, for example around conflict or disinformation, are truly received.
When considering all of these factors, it’s important for implementers to realize when the entertainment lifecycle doesn’t match the program cycle. Production and release with TV shows, for example, can take a long time. This is more than straightforward messaging about discrete behaviors (e.g., “get vaccinated”). Putting all of the necessary elements in place can help shift the needle how things are being perceived culturally. With the right partnerships, measurements, and audience-driven programming in place, SIE can contribute to social programming that helps drive stabilization.
Elizabeth (Beth) Wofford serves as the Deputy Director of Program Operations for the Stabilization Practice at Dexis. In this role, Ms. Wofford is responsible for operational management of stabilization programming to ensure program quality, implementation of project management best practices, and exceptional client relations. Ms. Wofford has 11 years of experience supporting USG funded programs, including nine years of experience supporting USAID-funded programs. Prior to joining Dexis, Ms. Wofford served as the field-based Operations and Grants Director for the USAID/Ukraine Transformation Communications Activity where she oversaw field office operations, start-up activities, and managed subcontracts and grants under contract. Ms. Wofford has extensive experience supporting the full lifecycle of complex USAID programs from a variety of operating units, including DC-based bureaus/offices such as OTI and DCHA we well as mission-based programming throughout Eastern Europe and East Africa. Ms. Wofford’s technical areas of interest include media and countering disinformation, gender equality and social inclusion, and countering violent extremism. Ms. Wofford has a Master of Public Policy in international development and international security and a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, both from the University of Maryland.