In evaluating the role that storytelling has in issue advocacy, the importance of big-name partnerships cannot be overstated. However, not all messengers are created equal, and like every skill, effective storytelling takes practice. The challenge is to make sure that the celebrity stays on message and conveys a genuine passion for the issue he or she is advocating for. In the case of Amy Schumer this summer, a lot can be learned from the timing and messaging of her emotional appeal for gun safety.
Storytelling is not a new concept. In fact it was an old Native American proverb that said, “Those who tell stories rule the world.” However, it is not learned overnight, and many passionate people have failed to be effective messengers for very worthy causes. After President Obama tried every tactic possible to pass gun safety legislation in the wake of the 2012 shootings in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school, it was clear that he needed all the help he could get to communicate the need for reform to the American people.
Obama has said that his biggest frustration in office was his failure to reduce gun violence. That is why it is increasingly clear that he needs effective outside-the-beltway advocates to make an successful emotional appeal.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York has been passionate about reducing gun violence since passing Assault Weapons Ban legislation while serving in the House of Representatives in 1994. But besides a couple minor victories along the way, it is clear that the leading opponent of gun control, the National Rifle Association, has had the upper hand in message strategy in the last 20 years. Why is this?
Advocates for reform like Schumer believe they have had the winning message, because on the merits, the statistics about gun violence are disturbing to most people. The United States accounts for about one-third of mass shooting tragedies around the globe, despite having only about five percent of the world’s population. That is why 92% of gun owners support universal background checks. While these numbers are compelling, the arguments that win the conversation on issues that are this personal, tend to speak to a side of our brain that are not effected by bar graphs.
When speaking about guns, visceral emotions come into play. So for fundraising appeal and citizen engagement campaigns, the progressive community needs to remember that a compelling storytelling narrative is the most likely way to capture the hearts of the intended audience in the modern day flood of shareable content and links that occupy social feeds. People with the ability to create, find and share quality stories will build larger followings and can use this to their advantage.
Chuck Schumer came to understand that the NRA and other, more radical gun organizations like the Gun Owners Association of America have convinced moderate gun owners that gun-safety advocates are trying to take away all firearms. This ‘slippery slope’ argument has effectively driven a paranoia that has given the gun lobby tremendous power to achieve unprecedented political victories, particularly on the state level.
When Senator Schumer teamed up with his comedian cousin Amy Schumer, he knew that he was not going to have success by heaving another quantitative analysis at the wall in the hopes that this one will stick. If the media would even cover that broken record appeal, people in the American heartland would see it for what it was – another attempt by the Harvard educated politician to look down his nose and judge rural Americans for clinging to their values.
He enlisted Amy Schumer because she was personally affected by a mass shooting in a Louisiana movie theater in July, as it occurred during the premiere of her film called ‘Trainwreck.’
At their joint press conference, Amy Schumer referred to the two lives that were tragically lost that night at the Grand Theater and said she thinks about the victims every day. Her point was that these shootings were preventable. This shooting and the one this summer at a Charleston church could have been avoided if there was a system in place to prevent the mentally ill or citizens with serious prior convictions from obtaining lethal weapons.
Putting this into perspective – the difference between winning and losing an issue campaign comes down to nuances in messaging. “Americans are all in on stricter background checks on gun buyers and on keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of a Quinnipiac poll taken in the wake of the mass shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school. “But when it comes to ‘stricter gun control,’ three words which prompt a negative reflex, almost half of those surveyed say ‘hands off.’”
This is a very important distinction.
As media attention saturated the Schumers, she took her message to The Daily Show. Thanks to her brave advocacy and her genuine passion for the issue, an entire new audience became aware of a three-part legislative gun control plan that would make it more difficult for mentally ill or violent persons to obtain guns.
However, it was partly a missed opportunity because she seemed to be tired of the spotlight and wanted to change the topic to a lighter conversation with Jon Stewart. The problem is that if supporters felt compelled to act by her strong appeal, they would not know what to do.
Schumer would have received extra points for delivering one of the key components of storytelling, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication. If she had taken her advocacy to that important next step, her story would “convey emotions that move people to act, and marry these with clear, easy-to-find pathways to get them to those desired actions.”
An action-oriented appeal could have taken this from a publicity-driven campaign to raise awareness on the issue of gun violence and taken it to the next level of results-driven issue advocacy. A plea to donate to an organization like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence or to call congressmen to support her cousin’s legislation would have improved the results of this ask. There are many good organizations that are acting now to implement commonsense gun legislation including the Brady Center.
In the end, public interest organizations were happy to welcome a popular comedian and actress like Amy Schumer to their team. Her ability to tell a story at a time when the country needed it provided a valuable service, even if her ultimate goal has yet to be realized.