Preserving Authenticity: The Nuances of Ethical Storytelling in Advocacy Communications – Zainab Chaudary

Joining me in this week’s episode is Zainab Chaudary, Senior Vice President at New Heights Communications. I met her at a great session on AI and political communications hosted by Peter Loge at George Washington University. She discusses several key ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

I started off working for a member of Congress in New Jersey. He is a physicist by trade, Rush Holt, who is known by his bumper sticker “in Princeton, My Congressman is a Rocket Scientist.”  I worked with him for about five years before moving to the advocacy communication space where I’ve been for the past decade. I worked with coalitions at the intersection of national security and civil liberties – for example, with the coalition working to close Guantanamo Bay at the end of the Obama administration, working to end government surveillance.

Then the biggest project was countering Islamophobia and Islamophobic rhetoric. This was between 2015 and 2018, which was a big time for a lot of Islamophobic rhetoric, the Muslim ban, and the Supreme Court work around that. The issues were our clients basically. We built a lens to the longer term, bigger picture messaging that can move people on the issues. Folks who worked at that organization bring a very different perspective to advocacy communications. I’ve brought that lens to the agency space and as a consultant.

You’ve been involved in some very important and controversial issues. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I have been on the client and agency side of the relationship. What I’ve seen is frequently this tug of war, when you’re trying to get media for clients, we’re often faced with the question of do you offer strategic advice? If the client disagrees, do you follow their lead, knowing that it won’t yield media hits, or do you put strategy above nuance and above their issue expertise?

We see this a lot obviously in the advocacy space, particularly in the racial justice space where people have their lived experience. They know how they want to talk about their work, but often you have to be able to find a way to connect that to what the media wants to hear and how they want to tell the story. Often, we’re faced with navigating that tension between what the client wants to say versus what would actually be successful in the media, or threading the line between how we think about the story and how it should be told versus how the media wants to tell it. The easiest way out is one of the two paths that a lot of agencies take. One is, do what the client wants to keep them happy, but get very few hits and not be able to deliver on the media coverage that the client might be looking for. The other is do what you think is strategically sound and rack up media hits.

But that approach achieves quantity and not quality. You lose the nuance of the story; you lose the authenticity of the story. Reporters can also tell the difference between very rote talking points and something that is deeper. They often want to sniff out the deeper story.

This was largely a frustration with the coalition that was working around the Muslim ban Supreme Court case where we had this firm we were working with, and they offered strategic advice at the beginning. But the coalition had some very firm ideas about how they wanted to do things and the agency backed off and said, “Okay, cool. You’re paying us, we’ll follow your lead.”

They were getting paid quite a lot of money by some of the foundations that supported the coalition. It was unfortunate because we didn’t get as much media attention around the Muslim ban as we could. We didn’t really capitalize on the moment.

If you remember in 2017 when the Muslim ban was first announced, people flocked in droves to airports, to support the community, to provide legal support. That momentum was amazing. As a Muslim American, I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of momentum around Islamophobia in all my time.

We lost that momentum by the time we reached the Supreme Court for this case. There were a lot of protests, a lot of rallies, but the community often wasn’t savvy enough to reach out to a couple of reporters ahead of time and let them know, this rally is happening, this protest is happening, come out. There was a big one in DC that we were surprised didn’t get coverage.

The community also didn’t always know what was strategically sound or how to get media attention. It was unfortunate that there was that gap between what made for good communications practice, what the organizations we were working with were willing to do, and how we could make just a little bit more effort to be able to tie those two together.

They’re presenting almost a binary solution set. Is there a way to push or advocate to find that happy middle?

That’s what we ended up doing. I’m Muslim American, and Islamophobia and the Muslim ban hit really close to home for me. The Muslim ban was enacted a week after my husband and I got married. When we got married, family members from all around the world were able to come to our wedding. I just can’t imagine what that would’ve been like if that hadn’t been able to happen. So, for me, it was really painful. I got really burnt out by that whole process of trying to work really hard with my community. I think I’ve been constantly frustrated by the idea that even if we lost that Supreme Court case, we could have at least built public opinion and public support along the way. We had so many opportunities to build those media moments and we’ve lost those opportunities.

Since then, I went into solo consulting for a little bit of time. My younger son was born in 2018, and I took a step back from the very fast-paced media environment to do consulting for organizations that were just on the cusp of building out their comms shop. For a lot of organizations, comms is the one thing they don’t have, they can’t afford it, or they haven’t really thought about it, or they’re trying to build their organizational infrastructure in other ways first.

What I did as a consultant was not deadline-based pitching. I had a six-month-old and I needed to be able to monitor my time. What I offered instead was this process that I developed of sitting with them in messaging strategy sessions that were really collaborative in nature, but along the way building the trust with the organizations by doing trainings and coaching.

When you’re able to do this process of collaboration, creative thinking, some training and coaching, you’re able to get better client understanding of what works and what doesn’t while also serving the stories and narratives they want to tell. A lot of ideating in real time. It’s a lot of pushing folks to answer questions they might not have thought about. Collaboratively creating a messaging guide first and then a communications plan that is both strategic and authentic.

That’s hard work, I will tell you. I’m in the middle of working with a client where there are six messaging guides I have to write. It is a lot of work because you have to look at what messaging guidance is out there, what polling is out there, and then combine that with what the organization has told you and combine that with their issue expertise.

When I was a consultant, I would tell people, “Listen, I have the communications expertise and you have the issue expertise, and if you’re not listening to my communications expertise, you’re wasting your money. If I’m not listening to your issue expertise, I’m wasting your time.”

It’s a really tough conversation to have with a client right off the bat, but it’s something that I put a lot of stock in, just being able to collaboratively create this guide, but also taking time to do the trainings for staff, taking time to bring them along on the journey.

The trainings we provide are media relations 101, how do you put together talking points? How do you tell a story? But it’s also things like social psychology.

Communications and social psychology go hand in hand. And it’s a really important part of the work that we do when we put the messaging together. We apply it and how to actually move messaging and narratives and how to tie back to key messages and how to think from an audience perspective. Not so much that you tie yourself in knots trying to meet your audience, but enough so that you understand not everyone is coming to your issue from the same level of understanding. We find in advocacy organizations, there’s often a language access issue because we use words that are not recognizable outside of the advocacy space.

I work a lot with the immigrant rights space, and for a lot of immigrants, English is a second language. If we’re using terms like “dismantling systemic barriers”, they’re not going to understand that language. So even from a social psych perspective, being able to help people visualize a concept is more important than using the lofty words that we’ve gotten very much used to using. I actually blame social media for that because I think we’ve gotten very used to trying to distill our ideas into 180 characters or less.

These issues can’t be solved in 180 characters. They make great bumper stickers. The tweet’s there, but it’s not enough to have substantive debate and understand the nuances that happen in complex situations.

The interesting thing is when you’re able to help people understand how things tie back to their daily lives, it’s so much more impactful. You have so many more people on board. It’s interesting because when we talk about the Affordable Care Act and you call it Obamacare, people are against it. When you call it the ACA and you describe it to them, “This means that you get health insurance and you don’t have to worry about going to see a doctor.” They are probably going to support it. Because it’s something that they see as a value add to their daily lives, and we’re connecting it for them.

What do you do with a client who really knows their deeper purpose?

A lot of what we’re doing in the session is pushing towards a deeper why or deeper purpose. The deeper why behind why you do the work. I’ve done so many of these over the last ten years and nine times out of ten, organizations, even ones that have been around forever, don’t know what their deeper why is or what they’re building towards.

I’ve had clients describe these sessions to me as therapy sessions for the organization. They often have language on their website, which when you spit it back to them, is actually at odds with what they want to say. But the reason that most organizations don’t know their deeper why is they can tell you what they do, they can tell you how they do it, but they don’t know why, the thing that they’re trying to build towards.

We try to get them pulled out of a space where we’re just asking them, “What’s your mission? What’s your vision? What’s your values?” Because people try to wordsmith that alone. We try to have them have a very open, free-flowing conversation about what the world looks like, the world that they’re trying to build and the deeper purpose of their work. That’s a revelation to a lot of organizations.

It’s been really gratifying to be able to walk that balance, find that line between those two binary choices that we talked about at the beginning, and do the creative thinking and put in the thought to really make their communications a lot stronger.

I’m going to pivot for a second and do what we both said we shouldn’t do and ask you to take a complex topic that you discussed for an hour earlier this year and put it into a 140-character tweet.  Thinking about the current challenges of AI and ethics and communications, what are a few things that you think public relations professionals should keep in mind?

It lacks originality. It lacks that creative thought. My concern is that people in the agency and PR space are going to try to even further automate their work. Already one of the key complaints we hear from clients about other agencies is how cookie-cutter the approach is and how they feel like they’ve been slotted into a machine, and it’s just copy, paste and rinse, repeat. There’s no strategy there, there’s no creative thought, there’s no flexibility or adaptability to situations and no work done on real messaging or narrative shift. The automation and the reliance on a tool can make the work easier but not necessarily better. That’s the distinction with AI. We must be able to understand that it can make work easier, but it is a tool. It can’t make our work better.

Beyond the AI issue, are there any other key ethics challenges you’re seeing facing communications professionals?

I think the issues are becoming very siloed. There’s a danger in the advocacy space, in the progressive social justice advocacy space. These very complicated issues, telling the story in a very repetitive way or in a very unoriginal way or in a way that’s not nuanced or deeper, won’t increase people’s understanding of the issue itself. That’s really dangerous.

Sometimes we treat issues as if they’re separate from one another. And increasingly, when you work with these organizations, what they say is, “Look, our issues are interconnected. Immigrant rights is interconnected with healthcare, with food access, with housing access, with racial justice, with criminalization.” And we in PR and communications, because we work with them separately, we end up building those silos too and keeping them separate from one another. Increasingly we have to do the work of showing how they’re connected.

It’s complicated, it’s hard, but I think that people really need to be able to see the connections not only between the issues, but also to their daily lives. Racial justice, climate justice, those things all touch people’s lives, whether they know it or not. We need to make that connection and show them how these things are interconnected.

Increasingly, I think what we’re seeing is this idea that politics is a zero-sum game. That demographics or issue are fighting and jockeying for space in a very limited arena. That’s not conducive to change. That’s not conducive to real advancement on the issues. It causes organizations to be pitted against one another. It causes demographics to be pitted against one another unnecessarily.

I come from Pakistan. When the Brits colonized us, one key way they kept a majority of people under their power was to keep them divided from one another. You see that today with corporations, special interests, politicians, they’re trying to make us think that we are separate from one another and that we have to fight for space for our issues. The more we’re able to build collaboration, the more we’re able to build connectivity in the media and PR space and tell that story, the better off we’ll be.

What’s your advice to helping people get more connected, as we are seemingly getting more fragmented, particularly when it comes to politics?

Think about how they’re connecting their issue to other people in a way that they understand it. How do you reach your audience? How do you reach people outside of your issue to help them connect to your issue, to help bring them along on your issue, to help teach them on your issue? How do you debunk and fight and combat disinformation and misinformation?

One example I’ll give is when we’re working in the Islamophobia space, we worked with a cognitive linguist, Anat Shenker-Osorio, who I am a big fan of. A lot of people love her work, but one of the things that was really important to us was helping people visualize a thing when it’s not something they experienced themselves.

She had this principle of like, okay, you’re talking about a hate crime, but when you say hate crime, if you’re talking about it with someone who’s never themselves experienced a hate crime, they’re not going to understand what you’re talking about. They’ve never experienced this. They don’t know what it looks like. They might think, oh someone yelled something insulting at you and you’re peeved about it. But a hate crime is so much more than that.

Helping people visualize and breaking it down into its constituent parts and as a story is important. Like a woman in a hijab walking in a parking lot was attacked by a man who pulled her hijab while her child was in the stroller. It’s much more visceral. We’ve done a lot of work in building empathy, but we’ve not done a lot of work in building compassion. Empathy gets people to understand an issue but not move on it. We need people to do is start moving on it. Compassion is the thing that gets people to take action, to get up from their seats and actually work towards solutions.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

This goes back to my days working for Congressman Holt. The thing he taught me that I’ve carried with me in all my work is if you come to me with a problem, come prepared with some ideas for solutions.

I take that very, very seriously. You don’t always have to have a fleshed-out solution. It’s not saying that the onus for building that solution is purely on you, but you have to be able to come to the table with some ideas for how to fix it. In communications, we get stuck very much in the space of building awareness around the problem. This is the problem. We’re having this problem, I want to talk your ear off about this problem.

We very rarely give people something to latch onto in terms of solutions. Very rarely are we able say, “We’re going to go from this to this and this is how we do it.” I think people can feel really powerless. Over the last couple of years, when people were feeling really demoralized by the news, by what’s happening in politics, they feel like they don’t have power to be able to change things on their own because those problems are so much bigger than one individual. But if we give them the tools, if we give them actions, if we say, here’s what you can do, here are some solutions we’re thinking about – that goes a long way in empowering people to take action.


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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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