A "Europe We Want" workshop. Image courtesy of the coalition.

Rhiannon Roberts

Digital campaigner and content producer

There’s a growing recognition amongst campaigners that we need to break out of our issue silos and work together to create a positive vision of what society as a whole could be. To do this, we need to find stories that are powerful and inspiring enough to counter the hate and division coming from the far-right.

But it’s not always easy to find the time or resources for the hard work of creating cross-issue collaborations, or the space to explore and develop ideas for new ways of talking.

This seemingly simple narrative framing project, called the “Europe We Want”, stands out for managing both of those things.

With nationalism and anti-Europe narratives on the rise, Brexit continually in the news, and nervously anticipated European elections around the corner, many European campaigners recognised the need to develop a counter narrative: a way to talk about a positive vision of Europe that would inspire hope. For this project, a broad coalition of civil society and trade union groups worked together over six months to explore different values, imagery and stories, and then to test what worked in focus groups. They’ve presented their findings in this (highly recommended) clear and easy-to-use guide.

How should we talk about building better societies in Europe?
  • Balance urgency with hope.
  • Stress the power people have to change things, but where possible emphasise the empathic motivation behind mobilisation.
  • Use the imagery of construction to help talk about community, co-operation and support.

Read more in the full “Europe We Want” guide here.

We spoke to Laura Hieber, who’s from the Friends of the Earth Europe communications team and a key coordinator of the “Europe We Want” narrative project, to get practical tips on working in a coalition and ideas for anyone considering doing a similar project.

How the project brought in multiple perspectives

Friends of the Earth Europe were the central coordinators and initiators of the project, but from the beginning they didn’t want the project just to come from their environmental campaigning perspective.

They worked with expanding circles of input:

  1. A steering group of around 10 people formed the core project team. They were individuals from trade unions and from organisations working on different issues including the environment, youth, development, fair trade and solidarity.
  2. Thirty participants from 15 different organisations took park in two workshops. The first of these defined the aims of the project and the second developed the framing task and the narrative elements to test with an audience.
  3. Civil society was invited to give input through a survey. This helped bring up good examples and stories from a wider range of campaigns than they could have otherwise learned from.
  4. The public. As well as getting out onto the streets and talking to the general public to develop ideas during a workshop, the focus groups run later on were the key method used to test different frames and develop the recommendations featured in the guide.
Start early and stay flexible with commitments

The project was driven by personal commitment and interest from individuals, and wasn’t really in anyone’s job description, which meant that changing job roles and other time commitments all affected the steering group. That’s often going to be the reality of a project like this, but Laura said for future projects, it would be worth applying for funding from the beginning to ensure more dedicated time and continuity in the steering group.

As the project developed and gained attention, more and more people and organisations wanted to contribute, bringing new ideas each time. Laura’s advice: “Send a call out early to civil society organisations to see who’s in.”

Work together — in person if you can

The workshops were where much of the thinking happened, but Laura also highlighted the value they had for bringing members of the coalition together into the same room:

“The live process of working together reinforced the sense of unity and created a sense of ownership of the project.”

This Europe-focused initiative happened to have many of their members based in Brussels, but for more widely spread coalitions, geography could make it difficult to get everyone in one place. If that’s the case, there are online ways to work together in real-time which are (nearly!) as good.

Illustration courtesy of the “Europe We Want” coalition

When working in coalitions, timings are important

One thing they got right: setting the conference call to be at the same time every two weeks. Inevitably, there are always people who can’t attend, but regular, pre-scheduled calls helped the time-pushed steering group keep things moving forward.

One thing they got wrong: putting their civil society survey out in the summer holidays. They wanted to get a broad range of input from as many interested people as possible, but the summer holidays weren’t the best time.

Seek out “committed experts”

Luckily, Friends of the Earth had some funding and were able to commission help from the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), who help civil society to develop stories and strategies for social change.

“They were really good guides for us – we rarely use well-founded research for our framing,” Laura said. “Of course we’re finding narratives all the time, but not in this structured way.”

She said that it really helped to have “committed experts” supporting them to develop a strategic approach to their research and focus groups, as well as offering a perspective from outside the NGO bubble.

Take your project to other spaces — before it’s finished

The key steering group members acted as ambassadors of the project in the wider world, even before there was much to share. By presenting the unfinished project at ECF Europe in October 2018, Laura said she got lots of helpful inspiration for the project:

“It was super useful to go to ECF with our half-baked project! I got some really good feedback — some people were really interested in it and encouraged us with some new ideas.”

She also met a key project partner in Benjamin Wilhelm, from The Dandelion Group, who went on to set up four of the focus groups, which were run in five different European countries. Although Dandelion were contracted, Laura said it made a huge difference to work with a partner who had joined the project through personal interest and commitment.

And by telling people about the project before if was finished, they were already building up a network of people interested in the outcomes.

The beginning of a process?

One positive outcome of the project is that the alliance has continued to collaborate ahead of the European elections. “Right now a huge ‘Europe We Want’ coalition is doing elections work together, mobilising people to vote and supporting each other’s work,” Laura said.

And the findings from the project have been informing the approach, as you can see in WeMove.eu’s pledge to vote and choose “hope over fear”.

Whilst the European elections will come and go at the end of May, the work of creating the “Europe We Want” will only continue. The coalition’s ideas for the future include:

  • Taking the focus groups to more countries and testing different stories
  • Testing within a broadcast context, such as on posters and in emails, rather than in a discussion environment
  • Involving artists, musicians, filmmakers, influencers and more
  • And perhaps a joint campaign for a more caring Europe

For more of their ideas about what could follow, and to see the recommendations that came out of this process, read the guide here.

Top photo: One of the “Europe We Want” project’s workshops. Used with permission.

Rhiannon Roberts

Rhiannon is a digital campaigner and content producer based in Berlin. She helps non-profit organisations create effective online campaigns on a broad range of issues.