A little magic and a lot of hard work
When I was forty years old, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to attend graduate school. In my first class at the University of Southern California (USC), Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the professor introduced me to Entertainment-Education (EE), a communication strategy that educates through entertainment. I was hooked. After graduation, I was given the opportunity to teach at USC Annenberg and work in EE at their Norman Lear Center. Later, I took over the Entertainment-Education & Social Marketing course that first hooked my interest and was selected to teach Health Communications at the USC Keck School of Medicine. I am still there today, nearly 18 years later, living my dream and teaching young minds the power of storytelling.
While in graduate school, I actually interned at PCI Media! Blessed with the friends that I made and enthralled by their work, I continued my connection with PCI Media and often had Meesha as a guest lecturer in my classes. Three years ago, my mentor and world-renowned expert in EE, Arvind Singhal, recommended me for the PCI Media Board of Directors. I was honored and delighted to have another opportunity to be part of this great organization.
It’s hard to imagine that authentic stories told in soap operas, dramas, and comedies presented over radio, television, live performances, and social media can not only change lives – but save lives. But from the beginning of man, life lessons have been passed down through some form of storytelling. Realizing this, writer, producer and director, Miguel Sabido, built a methodology of theories that, when incorporated into the entertainment narrative, enable the audience to learn valuable information and adopt healthy behaviors. Numerous other theories and models have been introduced and studied for the same purpose. One looks at how audience members become attached to the characters. For me, there’s magic in it.
Relationships that develop between the fictional characters in the programs and the audience are considered parasocial relationships or parasocial interactions. When we tell stories with characters that the audience can relate to, they begin to feel as though these characters, and even the actors themselves, are their friends. These parasocial relationships, even though one-sided, allows for the audience to actually learn from the actions of the character. If a character makes a bad decision and goes down the wrong path, the audience has a chance to reflect on that choice and, if put in the same situation, can make a different decision for themselves. Inversely, if their favorite character makes a wise decision, that too, can be modeled.
PCI Media embraces the Sabido methodology of developing entertainment-education programing with formative research on the issues and the audience. We listen to our in-country partners and the local community. We share our methodology and tap into their creativity. This work with local communities creates trusted, engaging stories and relatable characters. When the audience comes back for the story, they are more likely to develop parasocial relationships with the characters. Once the audience is connected to the story and relates to the characters, then the magic of entertainment-education will begin to unfold.
Why the #ISurvivedEbola Campaign Worked
In the 18 years I’ve been in this field, I’ve never been more impressed or more touched than I was with PCI Media’s work on the ground in Africa with the #ISurvivedEbola campaign in 2015. I get chills just talking about it all these years later.
The multi-faceted campaign they built during the height of the pandemic truly demonstrated the power of the methodology and the team’s brilliance. It’s one thing to be awarded a grant, complete formative research, and produce effective entertainment-education programming; but it’s quite another to travel to a country stricken by a seemingly unstoppable, deadly disease, with dangerous myths and customs that only added to the suffering.
PCI Media, with limited time and resources, saved millions of lives and then addressed the stigma surrounding those who survived. And yes, we did it by telling stories. Rather than starting with the problem at hand and seeking a solution, the team used an approach called “positive deviance” and “flipped the question.” They searched for an answer to “who, without any additional information or resources, was surviving this killer disease?” They located the “positive deviants” and began a campaign to share their lifesaving behaviors.
Working with local health officials, the team interviewed survivors and learned valuable insights about how to help others save themselves, too. From their stories we shared the simple lifesaving measures in truly organic, beautifully designed, and professionally produced video testimonials, comic books, playing cards, radio dramas, live call-in shows, posters, and community events. Music videos with famous rappers and musicians took the message to the country’s youth. Additionally, this campaign got the attention of the media and we were interviewed on VOA, BBC, and CNN. Our hashtag and campaign name – #ISurvivedEbola – was a tip of the hat to the impact of positive deviant thinking.
PCI Media, with limited time and resources, saved millions of lives and then addressed the stigma surrounding those who survived. And yes, we did it by telling stories.
The Future of PCI Media
What’s really exciting to me is that PCI Media has the ability – and the proven experience – to do this again. Today, during these scary times, when the world is under siege from the COVID–19 pandemic, PCI Media promptly opened a new division called Team Survive, modeled after the #ISurvivedEbola campaign. Team Survive went immediately into action and developed new COVID-19 prevention storylines into our long-running and trusted radio drama in Mozambique called Ouro Negro.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Ouro Negro’s live call-in programs have been sharing important health information on the pandemic by answering live questions on the air with local health authority partners. The public can also text to get up-to-date health information.
PCI Media has also cleverly pivoted other programs to accommodate new safety protocols and health concerns. In Let’s Talk!, a campaign aimed at ending early and unintended pregnancy in 21 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa, we pivoted from public dialogues to “Let’s Talk at Home.” This new approach fostered conversations at home through a new radio drama, youth-inclusive webinars, and expanded social media outreach. Additionally, partnering with Catholic Relief Services in Central America, we created a communications campaign that simultaneously addressed COVID-19 and food insecurity.
In addition to knowledge, proficiency, and passion in an organization such as ours, the future of entertainment-education is reliant on the relationships built and sustained. And that’s why I know we will continue to thrive. Our team is lean and mighty, capable and passionate, dedicated and talented. PCI Media is a trusted partner and with robust relationships with the UN and organizations across the globe. Guiding that success is PCI Media’s new president, Meesha Brown. Meesha is an intuitive and brilliant leader. She leads with strength, experience, compassion, and humor. And I know she believes in magic.