Taking Stories to the Bank

Free-Range Thinking | August 2002

Stories can be a powerful tool for advocacy, but how can you reliably produce just the right story at the right time? FamiliesUSA has found an answer.

You can’t blame Maryann Dianora for being frustrated. A 28-year old graphic artist from Sag Harbor, New York, Maryann and her husband earned $25,000 in 2001 and could not find health insurance they could afford. If they had children, the Dianoras would have qualified for Medicaid, but the couple didn’t want to start a family without having health insurance. Consequently, they found themselves trapped in a Catch-22 that is frustrating more and more Americans every day.

In March, Maryann visited the web site of FamiliesUSA, a nonprofit group working to ensure that affordable, high quality health care is available nationwide. On a page entitled “Tell Us Your Story,” she recorded the particulars of her dilemma. Less than two months later, The Washington Post prominently featured Maryann’s story in an article headlined, “Bush Health Plan Called Inadequate.” This was no coincidence. FamiliesUSA has been methodically capturing, cataloging, and releasing stories to the media for more than five years, and Maryann’s tale is yet another example of a successful, high profile placement.

Welcome to “story banking,” an innovative best practice for communicators who are serious about using stories to advance their causes.

“There was no historic moment of creation for our story bank,” says Jennifer Laudano, communications director for FamiliesUSA. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Senate’s Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care (better known as the Pepper Commission) collected roughly 200 personal stories as part of its proceedings. When the commission’s work was done, the stories were turned over to FamiliesUSA and the bank was unceremoniously launched.

Without staff or funds dedicated to running the bank, however, the stories languished in the vault – and despite the monetary metaphor, these stories tend to lose interest over time. By 2001, only 25 of the original 200 stories were still usable, meaning that the reported problems still existed and the storytellers themselves could be tracked down. Further complicating matters, the cataloging system was a mess. Some case histories relating to prescription drugs, for example, were listed under the letter “P” while others were under “Rx.”

Nevertheless, Laudano and her colleagues knew that the bank had tremendous potential. “Stories about the experiences of real people help make difficult and often complex policy issues understandable,” she says. “Reporters and policy makers find these stories useful to better illustrate the everyday struggles that Americans face concerning their health care.”

So FamiliesUSA got serious about finding more stories and rebuilding their bank. Using their network of contacts, they reached out to colleagues at community health clinics, field advocacy groups – anybody who interacted with “real people” on a daily basis. FamiliesUSA provided them with step-by-step instructions on how to recognize and capture good stories (see box.) They also set up the “Tell Us Your Story” page on their web site and used email alerts along with earned media to drive people to that page.

Equally as important, FamiliesUSA established a system for fact-checking and cataloging each story that came in. After Maryann Dianora entered her story, she received a follow-up call from Kati Anderson, FamiliesUSA’s press secretary. Anderson interviewed Dianora to confirm details and add a few more (such as the fact that Dianora had a preexisting problem with asthma.) Now the story was ready for “deposit” in the bank where it would be searchable by major category (Uninsured), illness (Asthma), state (New York), and other key characteristics.

In many cases, FamiliesUSA withdraws stories from its bank at a reporter’s request, but the organization will also proactively release stories to support its own initiatives. In May 2002, FamiliesUSA issued a report entitled, “A 10-Foot Rope for a 40-Foot Hole,” to show that President Bush’s tax credit plan would not help low-income workers afford health insurance. The report was sent to Ceci Connolly at The Washington Post along with a handful of “real people” stories — including Maryann Dianora’s – and on May 11, 2002, FamiliesUSA got the major media hit they sought.

As of mid-July, FamiliesUSA had 412 stories in their bank. The oldest dates back to 1994, the newest is just a few days old – and new stories continue to arrive at a pace of 10-15 per week (thanks largely to a heated prescription drug debate which is keeping web traffic high.) FamiliesUSA now has one full-time staff member, an intern, and an additional budget of $10,000 allocated exclusively to operating the bank.

Over the last 18 months, Laudano and her team at Families USA have placed approximately 30 stories in publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, US News and World Report, and Ebony Magazine; as well as in the evening news programs for ABC, CBS, and NBC. “I’ve been surprised by how many requests we get from reporters for stories,” she says. “The demand is higher than we can keep up with.”

And where does FamiliesUSA go from here? “Our goal is to have enough good stories in every major media market so that when a reporter calls, we know we have a story for them,” says Laudano. The determined pursuit of that goal is helping FamiliesUSA write a success story of its own.

Building Your Story Bank

If you’re interested in creating a story bank for your cause, FamiliesUSA has a step-by-step guide that can help. While “The Art of Story Banking” was written specifically for health care advocates, its basic guidelines can easily be adapted to suit your issue and target audience. To access a free copy, point your browser atwww.familiesusa.org/html/advocates/impress.htm and click on the document dated July 1999 to download a PDF version.


 free-range follow-up


Best Bets from Three Years of Grazing Cows

This issue marks the third anniversary of free-range thinking, and I’m happy to report that readership has doubled again – in just the last four months, in fact. With so many new readers coming on board, I wanted to remind you that back issues can be found right here on my web site, and I’ve listed below some of the stories that have generated the most positive comments over the last three years. Just look in the newsletter archive to find them!

  • How to Avoid Brainstorming’s Hidden Trap (October 1999)
    Step inside the slowest elevator in San Francisco and find out why some brainstorms are doomed from the start.
  • The Behavior Change Bible (November 1999)
    When Everett Rogers published the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations in 1962, he didn’t plan on creating an enduring manual for changing behavior, but that’s exactly what he did.
  • Give the People What They Want: A Story (December 2000)
    Even if you have reams of evidence on your side, remember: numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you want to connect with your audience, tell them a story.
  • The Truth About Mission and Message (March 2001)
    The Florida Department of Health is keeping teenagers away from tobacco like never before. What’s the secret behind this groundbreaking anti-smoking campaign? (Hint: it’s not about health.)
  • Five Questions to Build Your Message (October 2001)
    A campaign that successfully promoted breastfeeding demonstrates how answering five questions can help any public interest group craft the most persuasive message.
  • Creative Convincing and Cheap (March 2002)
    Bar coasters, personal ads, and do-it-yourself research are just a few of the tools public interest groups are using to craft campaigns that won’t bust their budgets.