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Developing a Message

Basic Elements in Your Social Justice Message

Utilizing the media is a tool that advocacy workers and groups find very important. When used appropriately, the media can play an important role in involving and broadening constituencies, neutralizing opposition, and favorably influencing decision-makers. If you can think of any media campaign, whether for commercial purposes or for social justice ones, you will notice that it includes the following elements that should exist in the final shape of the message1):

  • Alerting the intended audience(s) to the existence of a problem that needs to be addressed;
    • What aspect of the problem could most attract this audience?
    • Imagine yourself attracting your neighbor’s attention to a fire in their basement.
  • Explaining your point of view about the causes of the problem and the best ways to tackle it;
    • Think about what makes most sense to this group.
    • Be aware of and sensitive to issues like race, gender, class, etc. that might trigger positive or negative reactions.
  • Inviting the audience(s) to adopt the same point of view
    • How does it affect their lives, beliefs, mission, etc?
    • Check with them about specific incidents in their own lives when they were negatively affected (or were lucky enough not go through the problem).
    • What would tell you that they have linked the issue to their lives? And
  • Urging the audience(s) to take an action.
    • What is it that you would like them to do? Be as specific as possible.
    • Be prepared with tools that would help them take these actions.
    • Welcome and learn from other suggestions that the audience might have!

The last piece of “urging people to take an action” is a critical one to our work in social justice. We often use the expression “raising the awareness” as a goal by and in itself in our social justice work. This reference to “awareness raising” falls short of emphasizing the action piece that characterizes advocacy. As advocacy workers, you need to ensure that your media message, even if you say it in a meeting or one on one, carries this clear call for action piece.

To highlight the difference between “awareness raising” and the need to take an action, Olga Gladkik of Coady International Institute, Nova Scotia, Canada, uses a great trick question. “How many of you smoked at any time of their lives?”, she would ask people in the room. Almost everyone would raise their hands. “How many of you”, she would follow with another question, “were aware that smoking is harmful at the time of your smoking?” Immediately, people in the room would see the difference between “being aware [passively]” and “taking an action” that matches the awareness

Developing a Core Message and Tailored Messages

The Nine Questions tool we discussed in the last Module provides us with a set of questions of how to identify and analyze our target audience(s) and how to best influence them. In designing your media message, David Cohen, Rosa de la Vega, and Gabriella Watson (2001) draw a distinction between developing a core message and a tailored one.

A core message is one or a few brief, straightforward statements that reflect:

  • Your analysis of the problem.
  • The problem’s cause.
  • Whom you hold responsible for solving the problem.
  • Your proposed solution, if you have one.
  • The actions you ask others to take in support of the solution.

The core message guides the tailored messages, slogans, sound bites, and stories that an advocacy effort uses at different times with different audiences.

A tailored message is created for a specific audience, based on an analysis of:

  • What will be most persuasive for that audience.
  • What information it needs to hear.
  • What action you want that audience to take.

Such analysis will guide the message’s:

  • Content.
  • Form (words, images, etc.).
  • Length.
  • Medium (mass media, one-on-one meeting, demonstration, street theatre, etc.)
  • Messenger or spokesperson (member of the affected group, an expert, etc.).

Guidelines For Building Your Message

(Coady International Istitute’s Advocacy and Networking Manual, 2004)

Craft each message for an individual even if you’re targeting an institution. Think yourself into their shoes before you begin to communicate.

  • Hammer the message home, using as many different forms and using as many types of media as you can.
  • Make sure that the message is consistent: do not change your message until it has been absorbed by your audience.
  • Create different ‘entry levels’ for people with different knowledge levels, so that there is something for everyone who wants to be involved. But don’t patronize people by producing materials that over-simplify the issue and create distorted understanding.
  • Feedback progress of the advocacy work to those people on the ground who are doing the legwork. You will need them again.
  • Let those on whose behalf you are advocating - for example, farmers in southern Sudan - speak, write, lobby etc. for themselves rather than through an intermediary.
  • Identify and exploit external and internal events and opportunities. Prepare a timeline and make sure you have the appropriate, well-researched information to feed into them.
  • Use the language of the target audience and avoid technical terms or jargon.
  • Be clear about what you want your audience TO DO as a result of hearing your message.
  • If you’re working as part of a broader network or collaboration, make sure that the message neither surprises nor compromises any of the members.
  • Opportunities to get your message across are few and slim: grab them when they do come and make sure you have the research ready so you can respond immediately.

Cohen, et al, advise advocacy groups to invite the audience to “fill in the blank” and reach your conclusions in their own way as a way to increase the people’s ownership of the issue and the solution. However, he also advise us to provide solutions if possible as people are more receptive to the message when they see a solution presented.

Put your frame around the issue

(Cohen, et al, 2001)Frames are boundaries that highlight specific parts of an issue, place others in the background, and leave out some entirely. They influence how the audience thinks about the issue, including who is responsible for the cause and its possible solutions. Your frame guides the content of your messages, including the use of particular symbols, metaphors, and visual images. You need to frame the issue in a way that is as vivid and compelling as the opposition’s frame, and shifts the audience’s attention to your perspective.

As a team of advocacy workers, you should pay great attention to the frame you want to put around your issue as it can make or break your campaign.

1) Adapted from an unknown source

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