How to handle client stories with care

Often, the most powerful stories organizations can tell are the ones about the people they have helped. They’re often personal, so they require considerable discretion.


If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in organizations whose purpose is to help others, it’s the struggle to tell stories ethically. When it’s not possible for people to tell their own stories, organizations must take on that responsibility. We’ve all read stories of people who have faced adversity or who keep on trying despite enormous barriers. There are organizations helping people in the wake of a natural disaster, supporting people experiencing homelessness to find accommodations or a job, or working to raise the minimum wage. The stories of the people that organizations help are often essential to an organization’s survival and effectiveness. The stories help raise money, which allows them to keep the lights on, and they show the people in power where problems lie and solutions exist. Done well, stories of people in situations like these can motivate us to do something that will bring about positive change. Done poorly, they can do a lot of damage. They can be exploitative, rob a person of their agency, and compromise their safety. There is an implicit power imbalance in this type of storytelling. A person may share their story but have little or no control over how their story is relayed to donors, decision makers, and the public. A child in Africa cannot be expected to understand how his or her photo will persuade donors to give to an organization via a savvy social media campaign. A person experiencing homelessness might never see the video of them that’s uploaded to YouTube to raise awareness about the lack of affordable housing. Organizations must address the question of how to tell these stories ethically. There are two basic rules that can help:

• Remember that the person has shared their story so you can share it with others. • Make sure the story adds value to the subject’s life.

So how can we, the storytellers, do that? 1. Tell them why their story is important. Share a little about your strategy and objectives and how their story will help you help them. It’s important you can link their story to positive change in their own lives. If you can’t do that, it’s not a story you should tell. 2. Show them how you will use their story. To help people understand how their stories will be used, show them examples of other stories. If someone’s image will end up on a billboard, show them a photo of a similar billboard in the context it’s used. 3. Obtain free, prior, and informed consent. It’s important that you gain consent before using a person’s story. It must be given without coercion or manipulation, given before the story is used, and offered with full knowledge of how the story will be used. Where possible, gain written consent so the duration and terms of the consent are clear. Leave a copy with them. Ask for their contact details so you can get in touch with them if you’d like to use their story for something else in the future, and allow the subject to withdraw consent at any stage. 4. Go on their turf. It’s important that the subject feels as comfortable as possible. He or she might feel intimidated coming across town and meeting in your high-rise office. Offer to meet in a place that makes the person comfortable. You may also encourage them to bring someone they trust to the interview. This could be a social worker, a friend, or a family member. Chances are they’ll feel more relaxed and open up. The photos will be better, too. 5. Make quotes sacred. Sometimes a person’s language is imperfect. They might not speak English well or ramble. Journalists disagree on whether quotes are sacred. Some think it’s fine to fix up quotes; others think that what goes between the quotation marks can’t be touched. It’s tempting to clean up quotes for clarity, but it’s a slippery slope. If you fix up a word that’s not quite right, it then becomes easier to alter a sentence to make it sexier. Don’t do it. If the person says something that doesn’t quite make sense, ask them to repeat it, or ask the question another way. 6. Act as a publicist. If a reporter is writing the story, offer to go to the interview with the subject and record it. Journalists rarely share the story before it’s published, but they might let you check quotes. 7. Be cautious with images. Ensure that all photos and video portray the subject in a dignified way. Ask yourself, “Is this an image I would like if it was me?” 8. Make them a part of the victory. If your story manages to help you achieve a particular goal, tell the subject. It could have resulted in a change of law or helped you raise the money you needed for a project. 9. Remember that the most important thing is their safety. Even if the subject gives you consent, it doesn’t always mean you should use the story. If you have any concerns about the health or safety of the person, or they are the victim of a crime that you suspect hasn’t been reported, talk to your supervisor or someone in your organization that is closer to the person than you. Being an ethical storyteller means sometimes deciding not to tell the story. The Dart Centre has excellent guidelines for discussing sexual violence, for instance.

It’s worth remembering that along with permission to tell a story comes the responsibility to tell it in a way that the subject of that story would tell it themselves. Jeremy Porter is a freelance communications strategist and writer. He blogs regularly and can be found on Twitter.

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