February 28, 2022

Ethical Storytelling in Transportation

For mobility communicators, people-centric storytelling can be a powerful way to build empathy with your audiences and humanize your policy goals. Sharing personal stories about the people who are impacted by a service, policy, or project can be far more compelling than presenting data alone – whether as quotes in a press release, incorporated into public testimony, or on social media.

But storytelling carries responsibilities that communicators must be aware of or risk causing harm. Here are tips on approaching storytelling ethically:

Recognize that by telling a story, you are in a position of power. Any time you tell a story about another person to support advocacy, you are making decisions: what facts to include, what identities of that person to elevate, what other voices and experiences to leave out. Stories either reinforce or break stigmas; strengthen or disrupt narratives. Recognizing that storytelling is never a neutral act is an important first step.

Build on preexisting relationships as much as possible. The most meaningful and authentic communications happen between people who know and trust each other. In seeking out stories, look to your own members and networks, or ask a partner organization serving and trusted by a different constituency if they would be interested in collaborating to bring together a wider range of stories toward a common goal.

Respect and reflect how people describe their own lives. In collaborating with someone to share their story, ask how they feel they best fit into the context of the topic you’re discussing. If you’re speaking to them based on what you perceive as a particular aspect of their identity – for example, as a bus rider, a mother of young children, a small business owner, a person who uses a wheelchair, a resident of Boston – make sure they in fact embrace that as an identity and want to center it publicly. Offer them the opportunity to layer in other identities and experiences, knowing that transportation always relates to multiple parts of our lives. Use their own language as much as possible.

Communicate consent early and often. Make sure you and the person understand and are on the same page with what it literally means for them to share their story with you. In your initial conversation, cover topics like:

  • Where and when you will share their story. Will their story or quote be shared in a single press release, or become part of many communications assets over the year? If you are using an image of a person, it’s better to also get consent in writing.
  • How they prefer you keep in touch. Offer to send them news clips, social media posts, or other updates when their story appears. Make sure to reinforce that once a story is in the media or online it will remain there, but that it’s always ok for them to say they want to update their story or stop sharing their story in any new assets.

And importantly, remember to thank everyone who shares their story for their generosity.

Learn more and sign the pledge at And for a discussion on ethical storytelling, watch this presentation titled BraveSpace: Ethical Storytelling from the 2021 Fierce Urgency of Now Festival featuring Jayda Leder-Luis, Kelley Chunn, Jenee Osterheldt, Porsha Olayiwola, and Gregg Grenier.