How to make change happen when your boss says ‘no’

By Benjamin Miller

Friday January 29, 2021


I recently published my new book, ‘The 100-Year PR Plan: A Guide for Advocates’.

The book is about strategic communication, and is based on the methods of the British intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner. For decades, Quentin Skinner studied the impact of rhetorical innovation on political conflict. The way we use language changes that language, and language changes what is possible in society.

My book is intended for audiences in the nonprofit sector, but Skinner’s insights hold true for those in government as well, especially if they are seeking to drive change.

This excerpt contains an exercise to help you understand the true (but hidden) audience for all your communication. It has been edited so it is clear on its own and to speak more directly to your context. By understanding who your hidden audience is, you can adapt the way you innovate to recruit support from those who might otherwise resist the change you are trying to bring about.

Identifying your hidden audience

For this exercise, identify the key players who maintain the structures that you seek to change or replace.

I will be using the example of someone advocating for cultural change in how society views and responds to gender-based violence. If there is a change you would like to see in society, take a moment to reflect on what that change might look like and what the ideal outcome would be in your mind.

First, begin by identifying the actors who can most obviously deliver the change you want to see. Second, formulate the explicit or implicit reasons they might reject your proposal or have done so in the past. In our example of gender-based violence, that might look like this:

What is the need for change? Who has the power to drive that change? Implicit or explicit reasons they might object
Gender-based violence affects 1 in 3 women, and according to the World Bank, “In some countries, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP – more than double what most governments spend on education”
  • Policy-makers
  • Politicians
  • Celebrities and role models
  • Civil society organisations devoted to ending gender-based violence
  • The scale of the challenge is too great (explicit)
  • It is not a topic that can secure votes in an election (implicit)

By comparing your justification for why your idea or plan is a good one to the reasons it may be rejected, it enables you to more precisely identify the ideological mismatch or short-comings in your pitch. Once you have done that, you will need to identify the sources of these objections, i.e. what leads them to reject your proposal.

This is important because, if you are trying to make change happen, your primary audience should first and foremost be those who object to your idea. Engaging with those “hidden audiences” will be necessary for longer-term impact, although they may or may not be your direct audiences.

Step 1: Identify immediate decision-makers

Identifying your silent opposition — ‘the hidden audience’—  starts with identifying your immediate decision-maker. The immediate decision-maker is the individual or organisation who has direct control over the action you would like to legitimise or delegitimise in pursuit of your mission. In the example below, I show what that could look like in practice.

To identify your immediate decision-maker, ask:

  • What is the activity I am trying to legitimise or delegitimise?
  • Who does the action or would do the action?
  • Are they an individual or an institution?
  • Who has the power to stop the action from happening?
  • Are they an individual or an institution?

Example: Bystander Intervention Approach to Gender-Based Violence

What is the activity I am trying to legitimise or delegitimise? Delegitimise gender-based violence
Who does the action or would do the action? Primarily men
Are they an individual or an institution? Individual
Who has the power to stop the action from happening? Those around the man committing the violence
Are they an individual or an institution? Individuals (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) Institutions (workplaces, schools, public transit, etc.)

Step 2: Why the immediate actor has rejected your proposal

The next step is to determine why the decision-maker has so far not taken the steps you advocate. In doing so, you should write it out in the same way you wrote your own justifications for your aims (in a previous chapter). They may have given a reason for their decision.

There are a number of sources you can look to for answers to these questions. Individuals may give you reasons for their decisions if you just ask. Even if there might be other reasons that they are not telling you about, it still represents what they believe is a sufficient justification for their actions.

For public decision-makers there are a range of sources you can check:

  • Government websites
  • Comments to the press
  • Election platforms and other party documents
  • In the UK, Canada, and similar parliamentary systems you can check Hansard (transcripts from the legislature)
  • Legislative committee reports and transcripts
  • Budget notes and explanations
  • Responses to reports by auditor-generals, privacy commissioners, ombuds and similar officials
  • Academic articles in public policy, history, political science and related fields
  • Interviewing people close to the decision or decision-maker
  • Court cases
  • And last but not least, by asking the decision-maker

If they have not been given an explicit explanation, you will have to infer and reconstruct their justification. This is not a simple process. Quentin Skinner’s method, outlined below, suggests you can reconstruct the justification of a decision-maker by seeking to understand their beliefs about what they are doing. Assuming they act rationally, we can work backwards by trying to explain how a given decision made sense in the context of that set of beliefs.

This means you must understand two things:

  • What do they likely believe about their own role in the decision? For example, how much discretion do they believe they have? What do they believe their goal should be in the situation?
  • What do they likely believe about the issue?

For example, a person on the street observing gender-based violence may think it’s wrong, but not see it as their place to say or do something about it (i.e. it is out of the scope of their mandate as a decision-maker). Alternatively, they may not recognise certain behaviour as violent and therefore not feel any need to act.

Step 3: Identify who has influence over the justification

Once you have formulated the justification, you can start to identify the keywords that justify their decision and the institutions and actors that create the ideological structure.

This structure provides the meaning, range of cases the keyword may be acceptably applied to, and judgment value of these keywords. If you have limited time, try to identify the single most important driving factor in the decision and explore the ideological structure around that.

For example, a keyword that may discourage a bystander from acting is privacy. If a matter is deemed private they may feel it is therefore inappropriate for them to do anything about it, as it is exclusively between the individuals directly concerned.

Identify sources by spirals starting from the decision-maker and going outwards:

  • Their staff, researchers, and actors responsible for informing their decision
  • The philosophy or position of their organisation or political party
  • News coverage of the issue from periodicals they are likely to read
  • Opinion pieces from commentators they are likely to take seriously
  • Reports and books on the subject written from a point of view they are likely to endorse

You can fill in this form to identify the silent opposition, reinforcing the justification they may have to reject your suggestion.

Sources of ideological support:

  • Influential colleagues or advisers
  • Organisational context (e.g. manager/employer, political party)
  • News (newspapers, podcasts, TV programs, radio shows)
  • Journalistic opinions (editorials, magazines)
  • Reports (government, think tank, trade association, nonprofit)
  • Books (academic, popular, classic, contemporary)
  • Social media influencers

Pay close attention to whether these sources are internally consistent, and consistent with one another. Playing on the internal tensions and contradictions will give you the leverage to recruit support from within your opposition to advance your position.

Of course, this is just the beginning of making change happen. Once you have done this initial mapping, the real work begins. In my book, I cover how to use this information to shape the language that frames key decisions and drive change.

The 100-year PR plan is available on Civil Sector Press.

This article is curated from Apolitical.


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