Porter Novelli

Helping clients achieve purposeful change and social impact sounds good on paper but is it really doable? How often can we make it happen? Are there really companies and organizations doing it – and if they are doing it, where does communications come into the picture?

A nurse talks to an inmate in C wing. (Jenn Ackerman)

A nurse talks to an inmate in C wing. (Jenn Ackerman)

Consider mental health. Today, an alarming 2 million people with mental illness are arrested each year. In many ways, this means they a) don’t have the help they need, which leads to arrest, or b) they won’t get the care they truly need as a result of the arrest. It happens all the time. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) – along with many other leading voices in the mental health community – knows this and has made it a top priority as an organization. They are tackling it on the policy front and directly with communities. But it’s a tricky and often sensitive story to tell so communications around it have to be just right.

How do we get people to care about an issue that may scare them? Or one that doesn’t look so pretty all the time? We need to generate the attention, issue the rallying cry that changes perceptions in behavior, but how? If you are in Washington, D.C., the answer is clear – you hold a gala – an evening when you bring people together in a ballroom, serve them a dinner and have important members of Congress deliver remarks over clanking forks.

Unless you’re the APA, partnering with a communications firm whose history is rooted in a need to achieve social impact through purpose-driven work. Then, you turn the traditional gala on its head.

An inmate on max assault status and a 23-hour lock down talks to himself in his cell. The max assault status is issued to inmates who have assaulted officers or treatment staff. The inmates have been known to throw a mixture of feces and urine, spit, hit, kick, punch or cut. (Jenn Ackerman)

An inmate on max assault status and a 23-hour lock down talks to himself in his cell. The max assault status is issued to inmates who have assaulted officers or treatment staff. The inmates have been known to throw a mixture of feces and urine, spit, hit, kick, punch or cut. (Jenn Ackerman)

What could have been a traditional rubber chicken dinner instead became an experience – an evening where guests walked through a hall of images that brought them face-to-face with life-size, gripping black and white photos of people with mental illness behind bars, in darkened, solitary cells. Images that alerted, informed and most of all – compelled viewers to do something. To think differently, to act differently about one of the most important issues facing society today.

It became an evening where instead of an average keynote speech people tolerate while dessert arrives, one of the matriarchs of news journalism – ABC and NPR Political Commentator Cokie Roberts – interviewed stars from Orange is the New Black. Suddenly, a tough issue became a fun, exciting “orange-tie” event, featuring stars from the critically acclaimed Netflix series, thanks to headliners Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols,) Matt McGorry (John Bennett) and Dascha Polanco (Dayanara Diaz).

Purposeful change is never easy – but it should be disruptive – and it’s always rewarding.