Real people, real stories: resisting the pressure to fake it

Of course they were never going to get away with it. The discovery that claimants ‘Sarah’ and ‘Zac’ don’t actually exist, despite being featured in a Department for Work and Pensions leaflet about benefits sanctions, has been embarrassing for the DWP. It also led to #fakeDWPstories trending on Twitter.

DWP benefits sanctions leaflet

No doubt the department was drawing on work by the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team (aka the ‘Nudge Unit’). They’ve gathered evidence demonstrating what many copywriters already know: that people are deeply social, and when it comes to decision-making, strongly affected by social networks and norms. If we see others who appear to be like us acting in a certain way, we’re more likely to adopt the same behaviours.

What if those peer endorsements don’t ring true? People are way too sceptical – and, when it comes to government, downright cynical – to let those quotes from ‘Zac’ and ‘Sarah’ go unchallenged. Many of the comments on social media were along the lines of: ‘Of course they’re made up – what else would you expect?’ Some drew comparison with charity mailings, with their ‘obviously manufactured’ case studies, designed to open hearts and wallets.

In times of greater suspicion about practices within both commercial and not-for-profit organisations, the rule of ‘real people, real stories’ has never been more important for communicators.

I work with a number of charities, and without exception they all strive to communicate a compelling and authentic narrative – both about the problems they exist to solve, and the difference they make.

But this is easier said than done. A while ago, a small charity asked me to review some direct mail copy about an individual who’d had their situation much relieved and improved after they came into contact with the charity. It was a powerful and very moving story, describing what an extraordinary difference this charity made.

Except that the story was actually a composite, bringing together details from a number of different, albeit real, cases. The work of the charity and the difference made was described truthfully, but the person named in the story did not actually exist in the way they’d been represented. It left me feeling deeply uncomfortable.

It’s not hard to see why this happens. Real lives are messy and complex and rarely narratively coherent, and there’s a strong desire as a result to edit, select and amend details so you can tell a broader ‘truth’ about your organisation’s work. Many smaller charities are low on resources and time, and wary of becoming bogged down in issues around safeguarding and consent. And let’s not forget pressure from direct mail agencies, journalists and fundraisers for case studies who ‘tick the right boxes’.

But we have a responsibility to deal with these pressures, and to keep it real. This takes time, skills and resources – not just communications skills but also relationship management and empathy. Organisations have to decide whether it’s a priority for them, and invest accordingly.

For those of us who write copy and produce content, we need to shape and tell stories that are compelling and powerful but that remain true to the ‘source material’ – the real men, women and children involved.

What if you can’t find and work with real people who are willing to share their story to endorse your approach? Can you really claim you’re benefiting them? That’s a good question for the DWP…


20th August 2015

Tom Albrighton

It doesn’t help when some commercial ‘stories’ are so cynically produced, and/or given such latitude.

I was recently asked to work on a story that was an out-and-out fabrication, designed to give substance and heritage to a brand that was itself manufactured. In reality the company was a startup in a different country to the one it professed to come from.

In the commercial world, I think people may now have subconsciously accepted that the stories they hear from brands are just another type of marketing copy, with a sprig of narrative stuck on the top – like mock-reality TV. True or false is not the point – people want to know whether it’s interesting and fun.

Having said that, I’ve also worked on stories that were genuine expressions of company founders’ life stories and business values. I’d like to think consumers can tell the difference – but who can really distinguish between fact and fiction without concrete evidence?

23rd August 2015

L Horton

As a former member of the Government Information Service I was surprised that DWP staff had to resort to concocting false profiles. Using profiles in government publicity is hardly new but it was always understood that you used real people and got their consent. Amongst the millions of DWP clients that should not have been difficult. Was this just one rogue official not doing their job properly, or a wider trend towards sloppiness in professional standards? I do wonder if Ministers had any clues about these profiles being false? It’s not the level of detail that often gets as high as Ministers, though again if you’re going to do something as risky as this a good civil servant would seek the clearance of the relevant Minister as it’s ultimately their reputation on the line.

What do you think?

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