If you’re an American business operating in or sourcing from a developing country, you probably know that telling stories of your social impact in those countries can be an important marketing tool that helps attract customers and even investment. Often, though, despite your good intentions, these stories can fall back on stereotypes and white savior imagery. You want to talk about how your company is helping lift people out of poverty, or providing reliable jobs, or contributing to community health, but without sounding like you’ve swooped in to save the helpless natives. Here are three practical ways to avoid the white savior narrative while effectively communicating your social impact:
1. Make sure your subjects are aware of what their story and image will be used for.
This seems like it should be obvious, and yet in gathering stories of your impact on the local community, it’s easy to get wrapped up in finding the story you want to tell and forget that the people you’re talking to have agency. Once you’ve identified someone whose story you’d like to tell, start by explaining to them why you’re interested in talking to them, where their story and any photos you take of them will be published, and why your audience back home is interested to learn more about them. Then get formal consent to publish your subject’s story and image. Release forms are standard operating procedure in the US – use them for your storytelling in developing countries, too. There’s no need to use lots of legal terms and jargon (and in fact you shouldn’t if English isn’t the person’s first language), but this is a small, simple way to help mitigate the power imbalance that’s inherent between you and your subject.
2. Tell people’s actual stories.
You have a certain story you’re trying to tell, and hopefully you’ve identified people whose experience of your company fits with that story. But if you find yourself talking to someone who actually hasn’t had the kind of experience you’re hoping to highlight, don’t record their story and then change it to suit your needs. Co-opting their experience by twisting or editing their words so heavily it’s not really their story anymore will make it inauthentic, and I promise that will show. Instead, find a more appropriate subject or reconsider the angle you’re going for. You might even find a better story than you anticipated!
3. Talk about your relationship with your subject as a two-way street.
Your subject isn’t the only one benefiting from your business’s relationship with them; your business is benefiting as well – otherwise you probably wouldn’t be involved with them in the first place. Don’t be afraid to frame your story as one of a mutually beneficial relationship for fear of sounding like you’re exploiting people. Treating people like they need something from you (jobs, income, health clinics, etc.) AND you need something from them (labor, materials, goodwill, etc.) is far less insulting (and more accurate!) than simply treating them like passive recipients of your benevolence.
This is obviously a big topic that evokes a lot of emotion and is part of a centuries-old discussion of race and power, so you’ll definitely hear more from me on the subject as I help you find effective ways to communicate your business’s value. But start with these three things and you’ll see an instant improvement in the way you tell your company’s story!