Throughout its history, PIRC has adapted and moved according to what our team perceive as being most beneficial to the public interest. We always base our work in research, drawing on strong themes in academic literature—from climate science and environmental policy, to social psychology and cognitive linguistics—and we always focus on helping civil society use this towards the goal of a more equal, democratic and sustainable society.
The current focus of the team is developing participatory approaches to narrative change and framing work.
Frames are both mental structures that order our ideas and communications that activate these structures and together they shape our perceptions and interpretations of the world. Framing is the art of using frames towards a goal.
We believe by understanding how narratives interact with our thinking, campaigners and activists can craft their communications to create sustainable social change. To this end, we run participatory workshops, conduct research, build communities and produce resources to help civil society create, hone and test new frames. In 2015, informed by our work on values with Common Cause, we transitioned to a flat management structure. This experience – along with the learning, challenges and experimentation it has afforded – has brought organisational development and culture into PIRC’s current focus.
Between 2010 – 2015, we developed a crucial aspect of our approach through our work on values. Our collaboration with Tom Crompton, via WWF, helped us recognise first that values were already an ubiquitous part of our work, and second that we needed to do more to understand the role of values not just in climate change, but in all areas of social and environmental progress. We saw the need for civil society to step back and look at the root causes of the problems it was trying to address.
We worked with The Common Cause Foundation for five years, helping to produce a handbook on values and to bring together a large network across many sectors of civil society. Over these years, we ran over 100 workshops for campaigners, activists, artists, trade unionists and politicians who worked on everything from human rights to tax to climate change. We helped them apply values to three key areas of their work: what they called for (the ultimate change they wanted to see); how they organised (the structures and dynamics in their own teams), and how they engaged people (framing).
PIRC was founded in 1971 by Charles Medawar and Michael Young and was originally conceived of as a British cousin of the Public Citizen network created in the US by Ralph Nader. Then Chairman Michael Young, founded several public interest organisations, among them The Consumers Association & The Open University.
Together with Social Audit Ltd, a non-profit body that was set up as an independent publishing arm, PIRC set out to develop and apply methods to assess corporate performance, focusing on the issue of excessive secrecy in British governance. Much of the work during these years was of an investigative nature, uncovering the (usually negative) impact of corporations and public bodies on people, communities and the environment. PIRC and Social Audit developed a powerful critique of the pharmaceutical industry, particularly on their promotion of antidepressant drugs that encouraged dependency.
Following this, PIRC began to move from focusing on specific corporates to looking at the broader issues within different industries, and in so-doing, operated increasingly through campaigning organisations such as Health Action International, the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Public Concern at Work.
As society became increasingly aware of climate change and the need for widespread understanding and action, PIRC shifted its focus accordingly. Between 2005 and 2010, under the leadership of Tim Helweg-Larsen, we worked to radicalise the environmental debate in the UK, giving others the space to push for deeper change in policy and attitudes. We undertook a series of influential projects including: Climate Safety, Zero Carbon Britain, Carbon Omissions, Energy Bonds and The Offshore Valuation that served to inform civil society strategy, new campaigns, and political targets for renewable energy.
During this time, we concentrated on producing accessible and succinct resources that could convey the otherwise technical areas of environment, energy and economics to a wider audience.