Mixing Social Justice With Brand Storytelling — What’s Your Mission Statement?

Producer Marshall Whitsed gives us an inside look at how and why a brand took a risk on a story for the greater good

How and why a brand took a risk on a story for the greater good

Content warning: This article references a podcast that features human trafficking of a minor, mental health, and suicide.

“I found myself naked in this room while these two people are here looking at my body. The men who kidnapped me were standing in the doorway and they just passed over a backpack and they pull out what looked like money. And I realized that I was sold just there and then. I had become somebody’s property.” — Tell Me What Happened S2E7

I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to realize that you have just been sold.

Tell Me What Happened tells the true but incredible and sometimes unbelievable stories of people helping people; stories of someone’s worst day, often a life-or-death emergency, and how a complete stranger showed up and saved the day. Our goal has always been to reflect the mission and values of OnStar in these stories. Episode 7 of Season 2 places us in the room with Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, on the day when he realizes he had been sold. The episode tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who was abducted late one night while walking home from his job at a pizza restaurant, sold into sexual exploitation, and then trafficked across America.

"Our goal has always been to reflect the mission and values of OnStar in these stories."

Many of us love a gripping story. It’s why true crime is such a successful genre in podcasting. It’s why we are constantly pushing and challenging our clients to think outside the box, to focus on something that hasn’t been tried before… Or something that they haven’t tried — something that might be unexpected for a brand. So I considered it a win for our team and client when we convinced a safety brand owned by a car manufacturer to push the envelope even further by telling the story of a human trafficking survivor.

After an initial chat with Suamhirs, I knew that I wanted to tell his story. I believed it would fit perfectly within our series demonstrating how strangers help strangers and often save lives. My desire for this story to be heard by new audiences motivated me to move the production forward and helped us pitch turning this particular story into an episode. This was an opportunity for us as podcasters to do something more than tell a story. We could convey an important message. Most people are aware of human trafficking, but many have never heard a story from a survivor. Most have never heard what those who experience trafficking endure.

"I believed it would fit perfectly within our series demonstrating how strangers help strangers and often save lives."

When I pitched Suamhirs’ story, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t going to be a lighthearted tale or ‘fun’ to listen to. But it could become a conversation topic in an environment where human trafficking wouldn’t normally be discussed. It could shine a light on an industry where the 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery indicates a total of 6.3 million people are in situations of forced commercial sexual exploitation on any given day. This includes 1.7 million children in commercial sexual exploitation.

It is an industry that operates right in front of all of us. This episode demonstrates that a brand that claims to be all about safety really does care about people’s safety.

I pitched a story full of challenges. One that showed the worst in people. It was a lot darker and more consequential than other stories we created for the series. Ultimately, the story is about how multiple strangers stepped in to help someone when they desperately needed it. The pitch mirrors what OnStar as a brand does for its customers. They provide the power of human connection when they desperately need it. This story resonates with OnStar’s mission that ‘wherever you go, whatever may happen, a real person is there to help you.’

Once our client was on board, the challenge was to produce an episode that was an authentic retelling of our guest’s story. We wanted to honour all those involved without exploiting what they had undergone. I knew that my relationship with Suamhirs was integral. I wanted him to trust me so that he would feel comfortable enough to share such a difficult-to-tell story.

“The last thing I remember is that I was just thrown into a van, and I just don’t know anything from there.” — Tell Me What Happened S2E7

By building a rapport with Suamhirs before the interview, I hoped he would trust I would fight for his story and ensure the final episode was authentic to what he shared in our initial interview. He was open and vulnerable; it was hard to keep back the tears.

During the scripting and sound design process, I was like a hawk, asking question after question to our team. “Should we include the name of his hometown, knowing his family still live there?” “How will this helicopter sound effect affect the listener?” Our team wanted the sound effects, music, and overall pacing of the episode to reflect the dramatic and tense story of Suamhirs’ life. We wanted to make it real for the listener, but at the same time, we wanted to be careful to avoid sensationalizing or dramatizing it.

The journey that Suamhirs was taken on, in vehicles and across borders, and the voices of numerous people he heard, lent itself to an audio format. It was an opportunity for our team to harness the power of sound effects and music, and use binaural audio to tell the story of what Suamhirs was able to hear but often not able to see.

The soundscape needed to be a true representation of what happened. After Suamhirs first heard the episode he said: “I’m humbled to hear myself in the podcast. What a fantastic job you all did with my story and followed my words on rescuing. Thank you, I’m humbled that you have used my story ethically.” Those two words, ‘humbled’ and ‘ethically’ stuck with me. This is what I had hoped to achieve.

This episode was a contrast from the stories we usually tell in this series. So we did preface it with a warning that the content might be hard for some listeners to hear. We wanted to expose our audience to the story, but we didn’t want to shock them. Our listeners have come to expect that each of our shows ends with a positive outcome, and this story is no different. It is a story of darkness and despair, showing the callousness of people. But if you listen long enough, you hear what can happen when caring strangers step in to help. The kindness of strangers can change someone’s life. It will restore your faith in humanity and leave you thinking about how you can help those around you. Perhaps this is a case of accidental or unintentional brand activism, but if your client wants to ‘make the world and the road a safer place,’ I say go for it — they may just love you for it.

I’m thankful to OnStar, and their marketing agency Campbell Ewald, for trusting us enough to allow us to create this episode. This is an incredible story that needed to be told and Tell Me What Happened was the perfect place to share it. It has a powerful message that will stay with listeners who will remember that it was made by a safety brand that cares.

To hear Suamhirs’ story, listen to Human Trafficking Survivor Gets New Life and Thrivespremiering on December 5, 2022.

If you want to learn more, you can find a few facts about human trafficking here.

If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, reach out to the Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1–888–373–7888 or go to HumanTraffickingHotline.org.

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