#Care & Aging

#Narratives

Ishita Srivastava, Chief of Narrative and Culture Change at Caring Across Generations, on changing the narrative landscape of care

Caring Across Generations ad campaign "Now is the Time"

Caring Across Generations is building a movement to transform the way we care, where people who give and recieve care have the infrastructure they need to thrive. They recently launched a campaign produced by creative agency Grey, their largest advertising production to date, using the ad on digital media and across state-level mobilization campaigns.

So how do you tell an effective story of care?

In 2021, we partnered with Caring Across to explore how audiences experience narratives about aging and eldercare in media, and then identified opportunities for content interventions toward a future that empowers communities of care. The findings from our research, particularly the family and child-oriented Tough Cookies audience, helped clarify for Caring Across how to craft a communications strategy built around intergenerational relationships and caregiving-whether for older adults in the family, or children, or both-by using the kinds of stories, tones, and characters already familiar to their target audience. This research found a natural home within their campaign, as they ideated a concept specifically with Tough Cookies in mind, building a narrative from the point of view of a child.

Our Executive Director Brian Waniewski recently spoke with Ishita Srivastava, the Chief of Narrative & Culture Change at Caring Across Generations, about CAG's partnership with Harmony in building a story that can empower communities of care. Watch the interview now, and find the full interview transcript below.

Executive Director Brian Waniewski in conversation with Ishita Srivastava from Caring Across Generations
Full Transcript

Brian: [00:00:00] I'm Brian Waniewski, Executive Director at Harmony Labs, and today I'm speaking with Ishita Srivastava, Chief of Narrative and Culture Change at Caring Across Generations. Caring Across Generations envisions a world where everyone can age with dignity, and caregivers are respected and supported. They partnered with us to support their effort in reaching audiences and moving them toward a vision of creating power around communities of care. So thank you for joining us today.

Ishita: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

Brian: Maybe we can start by just having you kind of walk us through what we did together, what Caring Across and Harmony Labs did. Although it was, it was many years ago now, so I hope, hope you remember.

Ishita: Oh, I remember. Yeah, so I think, so I've been leading Caring Across' culture change and narrative change work for almost six years now.

And, we've been lucky to be able to grow that work over the [00:01:00] time that I've been here. And I've always felt that it is really important to have our strategy grounded in different kinds of research. Specifically some mapping of existing narratives around care, really, you know, an understanding of what, what current narratives around care look like and feel like and sound like, and what impact that has on people.

So we know where we want to move people, where we wanna move these narratives. And then the other really important piece of the puzzle for us in order to direct our strategies is around audiences and just having, you know, being able to be very intentional about who it is we're targeting with, specifically with our culture change work, which is the work I lead, so that we're not trying to kind of create tactics for everybody because I feel [00:02:00] like, you know, trying to reach everyone, even though care is definitely everyone's issue, is not going to create very powerful or strategic tactics. And so, those are some of the pieces of research that we turned to Harmony Labs for.

I'd been hearing about Harmony's work for many years just in the broader culture and narrative change space, and was really excited to be able to partner on some of these pieces. I was aware of kind of the audience mapping work that Harmony had done at the, with the Story at Scale project, and I really spent a lot of time with, with those, audience groups at that time in relationship to gender, which is not, which is not not connected to care.

We actually internally started already talking about Tough Cookies as kind of our target audience just based on the Story at Scale work that Harmony had done. And so I was really excited [00:03:00] about being able to have a specific partnership where we could dig into the ways the different audiences related to care and, and how.

And then what were some of the narratives that those audiences were currently consuming on care so that we knew where we needed to move them. Yeah, so that, that was kind of the, the very broad strokes scope of the collaboration between us.

Brian: Great. We should just say that Harmony Labs did not do the Story at Scale work. Riki Conrey did it together with Liz Manne. But we definitely benefited from it and Riki's expertise.

So I know there are a lot of people who are trying to do the work that you're doing and trying to figure out how to fit cultural or narrative strategy into other kinds of strategy that may be living inside of their organization.

So I wonder if you could just say a few words about how you think about that at Caring [00:04:00] Across.

Ishita: Yes, absolutely. I came to Caring Across because it was one of the few organizations or handful of organizations that believed that we should be doing culture and narrative strategy work alongside policy advocacy and grassroots organizing in order to create lasting and sustainable change.

And I've been doing culture change work prior to being at Caring Across, so almost maybe 12 or 13 years now. And yeah, I just, for me it's just critical in order to create sustainable and lasting change on all the issues that we're all working on. I think it's really important that we are very strategically and intentionally investing in strategies and tactics to change attitudes, to change cultural norms, and to change the narrative [00:05:00] landscape of the way people come across an issue in their everyday sort of cultural consumption. It is the most ambitious thing you could possibly try to do. I mean, I was a one person team at Caring Across for the first three years, trying to change attitudes, narratives, and behaviors around care. And that's just in the United States. And that's just kind of an impossible task in many ways.

And so, just being really clear about what maybe the most strategic interventions are in the narrative and culture space. Who are the audiences that are the most strategic for us to try and move? Who are the people that are already maybe on board, but we need to use specific tactics to kind of excite them and [00:06:00] mobilize them?

Really understanding those differences, I think is critical to be able to do this work in any kind of impactful way with, you know, limited capacity and resources. And so just Caring Across has had a culture narrative change strategy right from the beginning and when it was founded 12 years ago. It was just difficult to get enough dedicated funding for this work. So they only brought on a full-time staff person six years ago. Until that point, the culture change work sat within the communications team and they did a lot of really good work, but it was hard to do it in a kind of a sustained way because we didn't have the capacity or the funds or sort of the money.

So, I think Caring Across and Ai-jen, our executive director, has been really an important leader in growing funding, growing infrastructure, building infrastructure and thought leadership on culture change in general. And, [00:07:00] I'm really grateful to be part of that.

Brian: Yeah, we're all grateful for the work that she does. It's wonderful. So back to audiences a little bit. You mentioned before that you came into the project we did together with a belief that Tough Cookies was going to be really important for you and the work that you're doing. I wonder if you could say a little bit about why you thought that.

Like what was it about Tough Cookies that made you feel like this was the audience you wanted to focus on or know more about?

Ishita: Yeah, so the reason I went into the partnership with Harmony thinking that Tough Cookies might be the, you know, the audience for us to focus on in the culture change work was because they felt like the right combination of people that had connections to care that were interested in family that cared about their family, that were motivated by family, and also, you know, [00:08:00] movable on issues that needed collective public solutions, which is a tricky thing in the United States to find, you know, folks that are persuadable on issues that need public investment and collective solutions, which is one of the, how we articulate one of the narrative shifts we want to see is we want to move people from thinking about care as an individual private problem that they have to kind of figure out to thinking about it as an issue that is a public issue that needs public solutions.

And so the Tough Cookies just felt like they could be the sort of sweet spot persuadable audience pressed to move on this issue and they were actively thinking about intergenerational relationships. They were actively thinking about caregiving, whether it's like for older adults in the family or children or both. [00:09:00] And that they may not be thinking about this as an issue outside of kind of their family unit yet.

Brian: And then in the course of our work together, I wonder if you learned anything about Tough Cookies specifically or more broadly that sort of challenged your assumptions or surprised you or delighted you in a way that was

Ishita: unexpected?

I think the thing during the course of our partnership, I think the thing about the audiences that was exciting for me that I hadn't factored in before was actually. Thinking, getting us to think about the people power audience, which is sort of our base, so to speak, in a different way or in a more strategic way.

And it gave us fodder for how to, I think, to just separate out tactics that made sense to our work, but were intentionally focused on mobilizing. [00:10:00] The people power folks as different from tactics that were strategically focused on activating and touching and moving people in the Tough Cookies bucket.

And so I think that we were kind of doing it already because it felt strange to leave out the people power folks, but we weren't kind of articulating it in an intentional way. And it just helped us. Think through, just like having a deck that says, "Hey, you know, here's the persuadables and here is your base and you know, here here's how they're thinking about care."

Just helped us then, you know, very clearly think through our work in these kind of two big buckets because our, Caring Across’ own digital team is always thinking about people, the People Power folks. And there are times when the culture change team can support that work or [00:11:00] add a sort of a supportive tactic that really reaches, that moves people.

The People Power folks, for example, we ran some sort of, I guess I call them experiments, but now they're kind of a standard tactic in our book, on TikTok, which was really looking at collaborating with influencers who are caregivers, so younger caregivers. Not always younger, but a lot of younger caregivers or millennial caregivers and younger who, are already on TikTok talking about their care experiences and actually working with them or collaborating with them to bring some of our narrative ideas into what they're already doing.

And that felt like a tactic that was really meant to kind of mobilize, more of the people power folks. As opposed to our entertainment strategy work, which is really focused on Tough Cookies as [00:12:00] much as possible. So we're really doing our best to work now with, network television shows that we know appeal to the Tough Cookies audience.

We're trying to speak to producers of Yellowstone or other shows like that. We just did a small collaboration with a Fox, show called The Accused. We did a bigger collaboration with This Is Us last year. And so our entertainment strategy is really focusing on the Tough Cookie audience, really trying to collaborate with television shows that reach that audience.

And then there's other things we're doing kind of on digital, and especially TikTok, that reaches a more of a People Power audience. So I think it just helped to really clarify some of those distinctions and just helped us get sharper with the way we were thinking through audiences and tactics.

Brian: That's great. So many of the people we're [00:13:00] working with now are either venturing into TikTok or very TikTok curious. And so I wonder if we could just stray from this research for a second and just if you have anything you wanna share about what you've learned about working on TikTok.

Ishita: Yeah, I think the first thing we learned really quickly was TikTok is not, I mean, very few of these platforms are, but TikTok is not a platform where you drop links in content to direct people off that platform, for example. It is not a place to ask for someone to go sign a petition. That doesn't mean it can't happen, I guess. But that was the first and biggest learning for us, which was that this is a really interesting platform to make narrative interventions on this platform, specifically narrative interventions. It's not the place to talk about, to get into kind of wonky policy language and then ask [00:14:00] people to take action in more of a traditional way. Which was great for the culture change work because that's kind of, that is our main directive.

But we were just experimenting because we had some national level policy things moving and we were just trying to see what would work and what didn't work. And so that was really clear to us very quickly. And we found that the influencers we were working with on TikTok were, because there were people that were already naturally talking about their care experiences, that's kind of how we found them. They were people that were keen to continue collaborating and keen to sort of just like the perfect kind of activist partner because they, they were already doing something and we kind of, just joined in what they were doing and asked them to add a couple of, it was more about framing, their personal experience as part of a collective rather than sort of, you know, giving them words [00:15:00], sort of feeding them with words that they wouldn't naturally say. So that, all of that sounds like very common sense, like to me now, but I think that was the biggest learning and, and when we got that right, the kind of engagement that we saw just in the comments and that the content creators saw was off the charts.

And then we actually partnered with this sort of more evaluation firm that's also experimenting with how to look at the impact of content on TikTok. And so that's been kind of fun to see what they come up with, what they find, where they actually then go and do some, they go and ask questions of the people that were engaged in the content to see if the content moved them in any way.

They're called Grow Progress. I'm sure you know, know of them. So it's been really fun to try some different things and learn [00:16:00] on TikTok. And I think what we learned about People Power has helped direct the way we frame things and who we talk to and who the influencers are that we're working with.

Brian: That's great. I mean, there's something about TikTok, the direct to camera, sort of intimate nature of the videos that really meshes well with what you're working on, right? Sort of the intimacy of care. So one of the things that is so exciting about the work that we did with you for us is that it didn't only feed into a strategy or a new way of designing some internal process, you actually made some really amazing ads with, with the research and that's really exciting. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit first, maybe just say what you made, what the campaign was and what, what came out of it and where it played and all that kind of details. And then maybe talk about how or whether the research was helpful in building [00:17:00] it.

Ishita: Yeah, absolutely. So we had been wanting to collaborate with an ad agency and produce something that looked and felt like an ad, but the main goal of it was to have our narrative change goal of getting people to think about care as a collective issue. And so that was something I wanted to do.

We'd fundraise for it and, I was just really glad that we could time the research with Harmony at the right times that it could feed into the process of working with Grey. Grey was the advertising company we worked with. So essentially the brief we gave them included the Tough Cookies audience as our target audience, as well as it included some of the narrative ground sort of research that [00:18:00] you all did with us, just so that they understood what existing narratives we were dealing with really, and this ad, we really wanted an ad that could give people a sense of what a future could look like if we had the investments in care that we wanted without saying "investments in care."

Yeah, we actually had you all present findings to their creative and strategic team right at the beginning. And so I'd say there were two main ways that the research around Tough Cookies fed into the creative and process as well as the distribution process. One was actually the way we actually conceptualize the ad itself, really keeping, the Tough Cookies audience in mind just around the ideas of family and, you know, the idea of, one of [00:19:00] the things that came out of that, one of the big insights that came out of that was around having the ad narrative from the point of view of a child. And so we felt like that would, and actually the Grey folks, based on the research, felt like having the ad be narrated from the point of view of a child would be really moving for Tough Cookies audience. And so that was kind of the jumping off point for them envisioning the rest of the ad story. And I also felt like, you know, that made a lot of sense in terms of touching and moving a Tough Cookies audience. And then the question was kind of how to, you know, how to have the child then become - see themselves in the future essentially, so that we could bring people along on this like time travel where we didn't have care investments and then did have investments in care, did have the infrastructure we wanted in the future. And so the child piece directly came from the [00:20:00] research and I think it was, it took us a while to get there, but I think it was really interesting and it was the piece that like gave the ad a bit of dimension and depth. And then of course, in the actual - so Grey had a media distribution firm that they brought on that we worked with, again, based on our goals, which were really about reaching people we don't normally reach who fit within the Tough Cookies audience.

And so again, we did some back and forth with you all on this, we decided that we wanted to distribute the ad on YouTube based again on some of the things we learned about how tough Cookies consume media on digital. And so we just put money behind some very strategic targeting.

Again, we handed [00:21:00] the research over to - sort of the Tough Cookies intel - over to the distribution firm and they kind of mapped out targets based on that. And really, you know, we did focus on both folks who worked actively caregiving, people who had been caregivers in the past, and people who were not caregiving, but sort of felt, you know, they could tell from some of their, you know, web browsing history that they had some connection to care and then kind of mapped that onto what we knew about the Tough Cookies, and that was what the distribution strategy was based on. And the ad did, I mean it was interesting receiving the first email once we ran the ad for the first few weeks from the distribution firm from our content, the distribution firm, who was really surprised at the number of people that actually watched the ad through to the end. We had a long version and [00:22:00] a short version of the ad, and he said it was basically the first time that the longer version performed of anything, of any content he'd put out, performed as well as a shorter version in terms of people watching through to the end.

So the ad did really well with the audience that we pushed it towards and reached like over a million folks in four weeks, I think. And these were all people who watched it through till the end. So that was the piece that I was really keen on. I didn't wanna just count people that watched 10 seconds.

And yeah, and then since then we've been using it in all kinds of other ways. Our partners have been using it, our state level partners have been using it, and then, one thing we're doing this year with it is actually testing it out at the state level in some specific states that we are running campaigns and working through coalition partners already.

And so we're actually going to be [00:23:00] doing some specific state level testing of how it performs and based on that, investing in bigger strategy around it.

Brian: Well, that's great to hear. I mean I'd like to think that that comes from integrating research into the strategy phase, the ad content development phase, and then the distribution phase and really letting it power the choices you make in each of those.

But I have to say, it's also kind of an amazing ad. For anyone who hasn't watched it, you should totally watch it. It's like shot of a cinéma vérité, sort of dark crime drama sort of way, but narrated by kids. And you do this really wild sort of time trick that I think is really, really smart at getting people to kind of imagine - both have the engagement with the topic that a child's voice can bring, and also imagine a future, both a negative future and a positive future at the same time. It's kind of amazing, I have to say, what you made.

Ishita: Thank you. Yeah, it [00:24:00] was really fun working on it. I will say that, you know, I was keen to work with an ad agency because I was like, look, they're in the business of actually changing attitudes and narratives all the time, and that's what I'm trying to do here.

And so, you know, what would that partnership, what would that kind of partnership look like? I mean, I'd love to do it more and more if I could, but those things are not cheap. So, if there are any funders listening, I'm here.

Brian: So I wonder if you could say something about that, the costs involved because I know a lot of people struggle to find funding for this work and a lot of people struggle with figuring out what level of funding is appropriate to the goals that they have, especially when it comes to distribution I think. And know, on the one hand, that putting a video on your website is not going to get them to the goals [00:25:00] that they have, but don't know kind of how to think about at-scale media creation and distribution. So I wonder if you could say something about that.

Ishita: Yeah, I mean, I think I've learned over the years, I've learned a lot of lessons about content creation and distribution where - I am a filmmaker myself and so, you know, it's easy as a content creator to lean into spending more money on creating the content than on the distribution. But the reality is that I could produce the most beautiful thing and no one would see it, especially in the digital media landscape or the media landscape that we're in. And so, with the ad, I think we went in, you know, even to funders, with as clear a sense as possible that this would cost a lot to make, that we would put [00:26:00] a significant amount of the total funding into distribution and because that's really how content gets places nowadays. Very few things go viral on their own, you know? There's almost no such thing anymore. I mean, things do go viral on TikTok and, but money, especially for this kind of work, you have to kind of put money behind it. And then in terms of, you know, I get questions about impact all the time, and it's about sort of setting expectations, but also doing our best to continue to test how something is doing as we go along. And then setting the expectations of whether it's funders or sort of broader teams around like how much we will ultimately know. And so I'll say that actually there was a decision point, and I think I shared this with you, Brian, at [00:27:00] the time, for the distribution for this, there was a decision point where we could have chosen a distribution kind of module that showed the video to people as an ad on websites they were on, and along with it came a whole questionnaire, which they had to follow, kind of like a survey, after they watched the ad, which would really have given us a really good sense of what people felt after they watched this ad and how, maybe, what they were thinking as opposed to what they would've thought before. I will say that module I was really, really drawn to because I really wanted to know what people would think and feel and have something to go by and to go on.

But the difference in cost between that module, the difference in in cost, and how many people we would reach. I think it was like, I don't remember the exact numbers off the top of my head, but it [00:28:00] felt like we would've reached, it was almost like 10 to 15,000 as opposed to a million by just pushing the ad out on YouTube.

And then the guarantee of people filling out the survey was even a lower percentage of that. And so I think for this first run of the ad, we decided to go with YouTube, that's what the research had really told us, that that's where people would see it and that's where the people that we wanted to reach would see it.

And so that's what we went with and we got a really significant percentage of clickthroughs even. To our website, even though clickthroughs were not necessarily our primary goal, it was like an important secondary goal. And then since then, so there's a couple of things I still would like to do. Smaller distribution pushes where we can measure, we can invest in actually [00:29:00] measuring what people feel. But since then, other things we've done is our digital team is taken with the ad and actually cut it shorter and some bits and done all kinds of testing on our own digital channels. And then now we're doing that, hopefully starting in Michigan, which is one of the states we're working in, to see how the ad does and based on that, actually running a bigger campaign. Whether it's trying to get it on like some local broadcast, maybe doing some billboards. The reason it looks like it does, or one of the reasons it looks like it does, is I had a vision of sort of using it to do a kind of a bigger strategy that includes stills on billboards that ties into, you know, a call to action page with a call to action.

So sort of like pushing the ad out a little bit onto other platforms. So we're hoping that if it performs well in one of one or two of the states, we can experiment with some of that.

Brian: Great. So, Caring Across is one of [00:30:00] the few organizations that has had a narrative strategy practice for many years now, kind of unique in the field, I think still. And I wonder just going back to the sort of distribution research ad content development question and funding question before, I wonder if you've developed a sense of what percentage of monies you need to spend on those different kinds of.

Like what percentage of a total budget would you spend on research versus ad content development versus distribution? Do you have a sense of that just to help folks who might not have as developed a practice?

Ishita: I think - so it's a little harder to answer on the distribution piece because I honestly think that more and more we are spending less and less on content creation only because, it's so expensive to [00:31:00] actually create great content and distribute it to the folks we want at scale. And so, that I think is going to be a little more of a ad hoc or year by year thing.

I actually think that in an ideal world, we would be doing multiple kinds of research, including continual narrative mapping, audience mapping, and actually evaluation of the work we are doing. And I would wanna spend 40% of my budget on research if I could, every year. Beecause I feel like it's, you know 30 or 40%, including polling work that our communications team does all the time. If you bring all of that together, I think 30 to 40% should be spent so that we know where we're directing our strategies and our tactics, [00:32:00] and we're continuing to actually measure the content when it's out there, measure what it's doing in the world.

And that's also, that's a whole other developing field of practice, that I know you all are also involved in. And so, I mean, yeah, if you bring all of this together, I think that without this, you know, we're kind of throwing things on a wall, and we're throwing things on a wall anyway, you know, and so just having, the research and both to direct the strategies, but then actually to evaluate and then sort of more longer term research to look at whether our work is having any impact over time as well.

Brian: We will keep our fingers crossed that we get to work together sometime soon.

Ishita: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. Yeah. Yeah. But I feel like we will.

Brian: Okay. Well thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

Ishita: Bye bye.

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