Creating consensus on food poverty

On Monday, the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry (APPI) into Hunger in Britain published their report, “Feeding Britain”. This focused media attention once again onto the issue of UK food poverty.

The report is interesting in the context of my recent study topics as it provides a credible basis to the stories that are told about food poverty. It also provides a counter to the dominant frame that the poor are ‘feckless’ or ‘scroungers’ – the report blames benefit delays, low pay, high utility costs and many other outside factors for hunger.


Chris Mould, Chairman of the Trussell Trust, widely regarded as the leading UK food bank charity, has written a blogpost on the publication. He talks of the narrative of food poverty – making the point that this report, worked on across political divisions, finally confirms that the narrative of UK hunger is real. This report could be an example of mobilising consensus – creating agreement over issues rather than encouraging participation [1].

There have been plenty of examples of storytelling in the media and by campaigning groups around food poverty, which can create consensus on how real the problem is by highlighting individual stories. They also frame subjects as appropriate for sympathy and inspire empathy: “that could be me”:

Oxfam GB also use such stories to mobilise action – encouraging people to donate and join their #clearaplate campaign:

Back in April, the Daily Mail attempted to reinforce the framing of the poor as ‘scroungers’ in line with the dominant government framing, sending a journalist to a foodbank:


This story was considered by many to be mean-spirited and following a Twitter backlash was actually credited with increasing donations to the Trussell Trust – so possibly backfired and strengthened belief in the poor as needing support.

The above ‘microplay’, “Britain isn’t Eating“, by the Guardian and the Royal Court is powerful in consensus-building as it shows how the Tory frame falls apart when scrutinised practically. It illustrates through drama the idea that the stories of the poor as deserving of sympathy don’t resonate with Tory MPs – she exclaims in disbelief that there is no gas, for example.

Jack Monroe rose to fame through her budget food blog A Girl Called Jack. In an article about giving evidence for the report, she talks of the expectation of the public: “I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me my poverty wasn’t real enough, or long enough, or whatever their particular factors deem to be poor enough” – not fitting with their ‘schemas’ or expectations of genuinely poor people [2].


We know from research such as the NEF’s report on The Austerity Story that facts are ignored if they don’t fit with the dominant frame. Anecdotes alone may not be trusted, particularly if they don’t fit the dominant framing of an issue – in Jack’s case, perhaps the dominant frame of the poor as ‘undeserving shirkers’ was too strong for these people to accept her as genuine? Or perhaps The Austerity Story is so strong that people feel that it should be painful?

 Resonance = Credibility + Salience [3]

“Feeding Britain” arguably has a high level of credibility as it is within political structures, cross-party, and the result of an inquiry. The messengers are legitimate political figures. Salience with people’s everyday lives can and has been created by storytelling as seen above, but the difference now is the credibility these stories have.

Perhaps now the plight of those in food poverty will gain more resonance in public discourse, leading to greater mobilisation of actors trying to eradicate it.


  1. Klandermans, 1984, cited by Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow in Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26 (2000), p615
  2. Tannen & Wallat, 1993, p60 cited by Benford and Snow, 2000, p614
  3. Benford and Snow, 2000, p620



Anatomy of an email (call to action)

(Un)surprising fact: I sign a lot of online petitions. I’m on a lot of campaigning groups’ databases. So I get a lot of emails asking me to take action.

This week in class we looked at how campaigns use framing and storytelling in their communications to mobilise support, looking specifically at some campaigning groups’ websites.

I thought deconstructing the story and frames behind this email I received would make for an interesting blogpost. It’s from the organisation Sum of Us, trying to mobilise me to sign a petition asking an energy company, Vattenfall, to drop their lawsuit against Germany:

[the email I received, my personal info redacted – PDF at Sum of Us – Vattenfall]


Polletta [1] explains how literary conventions are used in campaigning communications and how powerful these can be psychologically to mobilise people:

  • Protagonist:

Here it is Germany, which is framed as a ‘goodie’ – the email describes their action on nuclear power as “a win for the planet, the people and our children”.  It is also implied that all of us could become the protagonists of this story, giving even non-Germans a stake in the issue. Democracy itself is also presented as the ‘ideal’ that could be corrupted.

  • Antagonist:

Vattenfall, and other energy companies, who are creating the problem are pitched directly against Germany, and the people. Nuclear energy and the courts involved are also cast negatively.

  • Plot:

We get a tale of the background of Germany’s decision, and what it has led to. The email tells us that Germany’s positive environmental action has led to a lawsuit, and that this endangers all of us.

We previously met somebody from another e-campaigning organisation who described these kind of emails as presenting a “crisitunity”(crisis/opportunity). The pitching of a really clear story in this email involving ‘crisis’ and the opportunity we can take to resolve it illustrates this. It’s hard not to want to help avert a catastrophe when it’s presented in this way.


A number of specific frames are often used in campaign communications. These are discussed by Benford and Snow [2]:

  • Diagnostic framing

Specific issue: the problem is resolutely Vattenfall. It’s them who are pursuing this case. The email also mentions RWE and Eon but the subject line is “Vattenfall”.

Broader issues: in addition, “the game is rigged” – the legal system they are using is set up to favour businesses. And it’s secret. This creates a strong frame of injustice.

  • Prognostic framing

This is about what can be done, and often displays the theory of change used by the particular actor trying to mobilise us. Here, Sum of Us say that by signing a petition we can pressurise Vattenfall to drop their lawsuit. They link the ask and the projected result through the action framing (see below).

  • Action framing

In this email, Sum of Us ask us to sign a petition at three separate points, in a slightly different way each time:

“Sign the petition!” // “Call on Vattenfall to drop the lawsuit against Germany!” // “Call on Vattenfall to stop suing Germany over nuclear phase-out!”

The exclamations here turn the requests into demands and give a sense of urgency to them. The use of language throughout is emotive: “whopping 4.7 billion Euros”, “massive repercussions”, “tragedy…catastrophe”. In addition a collective is implied through the use of “we” and “our children” and the note thanking us at the end.

Van Stekelenburg and Klandermans have described perception of efficacy as being part of the reason people engage in protest. Sum of Us point out that Vattenfall “can’t afford to lose any more customers right now” as it is not performing well, implying that any action taken by supporters of this action is likely to be successful “if we stand together”.

I can see conventions like the above used in so many of the e-campaign emails I get. They are used so widely I wonder whether recipients might get story fatigue and tune out?

1. Francesca Polletta (1998), “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements”, Qualitative Sociology, 21:4, pp. 419-446

2. Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow (2000), “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26, pp. 611-639

3. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans (2010), “The social psychology of protest”, Sociopedia.ica, p3