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Lessons for communications leaders on involving those with lived experience

By Amanda Powell-Smith

We can all agree that ensuring appropriate representation through communications is critical – but how can we make sure the right voices are heard at the right time?

While there is no fixed formula for building representation, clear considerations emerged from the second event in our communicating complexities series for all communications leaders to consider as they seek to include more people with lived experience.

1. Humility

Involving other people has to start with an understanding that they have different experiences that are valuable and important to what you want to achieve; only they know what it’s like to live their lives. The phrase ‘working with, not for’ sums up the importance of genuine collaboration rather than tokenistic consultation. Yes, the process will take longer and be more challenging, but it will also generate an outcome that has a significantly greater impact and is more likely to last.

2. Respect

Inviting others to take part, share their experiences and join initiatives will not automatically be welcomed. Defensiveness and wariness should be expected; why now, what’s in it for them, do you really care? Respect is critical and may come from providing formal roles and titles in the process, alongside paying for contributions. The timing of requests for participation are also important; is the person in a position to be able to help?

3. Support

First person experiences sit at the centre of a lot of communications and can cause significant change in audience attitudes and action. There is a real danger that these stories become commoditised case studies, with the personal impact of repeating a traumatic event not considered and individuals unsupported or at worse sacrificed for the sake of the wider cause. The person telling the story needs to be an equal partner in the process; their life matters too.

3. Build

The introduction of lived experience is a significant change to many organisations; overnight transformation is not recommended. Start slowly, learn in one area and extend from there. Talk to people and organisations who are already communicating in a representative way and have experience to share. Consider partnership and collaboration as a starting point, for example the creation of an advisory or witness panel. Build insights and confidence – and share the bench.