Are we there yet? Evaluating Media Advocacy

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to get through this fairly short document–there are times when hundreds of interruptions to pull apart stubborn Lego pieces are really not that conducive to efficient processing of information!

But I’m glad that I found it, and read it, because it is a pretty simple way of framing something that we should always do but rarely get done (kind of appropriate, then, hunh?):

Craft a clear, measurable, strategic plan for how we intend to communicate about our desired social change, and then (drum roll, please…)

Actually see if it’s working!

When I work with students or advocates about their social change goals, “influence public opinion” or “educate the community” often feature prominently among their objectives. And I always cringe a bit, honestly, because those are so vague and loose and ‘squishy’, the kind of goal that sometimes never gets done.

This guide, produced by the Communications Network, which is, itself, supported by a group of high-powered foundations, has some really commonsense stuff in it. So, you know, the stuff that we should know but never take the time to think about?

Here are some of the highlights, with some examples that really resonated with me. It’s a quick read, though, if you don’t have to fast-forward through the ‘scary’ parts of Curious George videos, so check it out.

  • You need a communications plan. Yes, I know, “duh”, but you DO. Start there; the end of this guide has some good resources if you need help.
  • We need to be constantly monitoring the environment regarding our issues–both because that’s how we figure out where to set our benchmarks and how we should begin to respond, and also because we need a baseline. This means looking at public opinion surveys, reading letters to the editor, looking at our web traffic, tracking phone calls and other organizational contacts in some kind of systematic way.

    STOP. If you’re not already using Google Alerts to monitor mentions of your organization and/or your core social change issues, please start RIGHT NOW. It’s another one of Google’s totally awesome services that you can’t afford not to use (because it’s free).

  • It’s not enough just to say that we want more people to be ‘aware’. We have to ask ourselves why we care that people are aware, and what we want them to do with this awareness–change their behavior, seek policy change, become champions? We need to layer qualitative messages over quantitative ones here, so that we know not just how many people recognize, for example, our organization, but also what they understand about what we stand for. We have to remember that the easiest analytics are usually the least meaningful.
  • If policy change is what we seek (and it is, right? right?), then we need to pay attention to shifting the discourse. This is where communications connect to advocacy and the need to create our own windows of political opportunity. They used the example of an organization measuring the use of the term ‘undocumented workers’ rather than ‘illegal immigrants’ as a way to know when they were succeeding in changing the conversation about a particular topic, and, therefore, potentially opening some space for policy change.
  • Figuring out if what we’re doing with communications is likely to get us to our ultimate goals around policy change requires connecting our messaging to our theory of change–essentially, we’re measuring proxies for our real success, but these kinds of interim measures are how we can assess midstream in order to make changes where needed.
  • If we’re researching which messages connect with which audiences, then we’re MUCH more likely to actually speak the way people will be able to hear. Message matters, and figuring out the right one can put your reform over the finish line (“death tax”, anyone?).

    It reminds me a lot of my work on immigration policy. Those of us closest to the issue thought that our “best” argument was around immigrants’ economic contributions. So we’d trot out these figures about how much more immigrants pay in taxes than they receive in benefits, and right around the time we got to quoting the National Academy of Sciences, people’s eyes glazed over.

    They don’t care. Not much, at least. Those are numbers they’ll never meet and never trust.

    When we, as a coalition, conducted extensive research on the messages that did move people around immigration, it wasn’t about economics. It was about values. When we talked about how immigrants love this country so much that they sought it out, that they care about their families and their faith and want the American Dream that has motivated immigration to this country for generations, that’s when people started to nod. They know those people. And they just might like them.

    We need to count those nods, whether they’re online or on TV or in a town hall or on the editorial page; figure out how to get more of them; and adjust our communications strategy (because we have one now, right?) accordingly. There is a war over words, and it’s one we need to win.

    Are We There Yet?

    Media Evaluation Project

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