Kim Deterline

The Keys to Success for Grassroots Campaigns

In this media age, advocates who want to win social justice campaigns must add media skills to their tool box. But marginalized communities must deal with mainstream media outlets that are streaked with social bias. People of color, gays and lesbians, low-income people and other disenfranchised groups have to adopt a two-pronged media strategy: employing innovative publicity techniques that go beyond traditional P.R. tactics, as well as engaging in media activism that puts public pressure on news organizations to report on issues fairly and accurately.Public interest and community-based groups are often deficient in these areas. Strategic publicity skills such as reframing stories and controlling the terms of debate in media interviews are seldom mastered by activists. Even when public interest groups receive media training, it's frequently modeled on corporate P.R.: The assumption is that if social justice groups just conducted their P.R. campaign well, they would receive good coverage.Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Organizations that represent marginalized communities often face media biases or stereotypes. Media training for these groups has to address the specific obstacles that stand in the way of fair coverage.However, there are models of successful, innovative media campaigns by public interest groups, including several launched by the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, and a tobacco-control initiative by activists in California. In these winning campaigns, the keys to success are often the same. The California anti-smoking campaign (described in Wallack et al, Media Advocacy and Public Health) provides a model for effective and strategic use of the media: successful message development, framing and advocacy.The Tobacco ExampleAnti-smoking organizations once used their ads to target individual smokers, providing health information and encouraging quitting. They saw the smoker as the problem, and thus presumed that affecting the smoker was the key to the solution.But over time, public health data showed that providing individuals with health information alone was not the most effective way of improving public health. What did lower rates of dangerous health habits was creating an environment where healthy behavior choices were easier to make. The point was not to stress individual responsibility but to change public policy. This involved identifying who profits from unhealthy health habits and either limiting the availability of dangerous substances, or limiting the way advertisers market their products.In light of these new insights, anti-smoking forces switched strategies, emphasizing the institutional responsibility of the tobacco industry. The advocates' media message became: "The tobacco industry is profiting off a substance that kills people." Their media strategy complemented their policy advocacy goals: Their efforts to limit tobacco advertising, sales and the number of public places where smoking is allowed became much more effective as public opinion toward the tobacco companies changed.Anti-smoking advocates have had tremendous success in California, achieving restrictions on smoking in public places, limits on tobacco advertising and a decline in smoking rates. Combined with sustained community organizing and lobbying, anti-smoking media advocates won significant victories against the tobacco industry despite its lobbying power.Keys to SuccessThe keys to success in the anti-smoking campaign are applicable to many other kinds of media campaigns:Advocates were willing to take an extreme position to pull the terms of debate to their side. As Herb Chao Gunther of the Public Media Center says (and his successful media campaigns demonstrate), successful media activists are willing to take an extreme position while explaining it in mainstream language and framing it in terms of fundamental values that are shared by the audience you are trying to reach.The message communicated what was fundamentally at issue. Often advocates get bogged down in details or in responding to opponents claims, rather than sticking to the fundamental issues at stake: what the issue will mean for our communities, our children, our world. In the case of anti-smoking advocates, the fundamental issue was whether corporations would be unrestricted in selling a substance that killed people.The message frames the issue as institutional rather than individual responsibility. Mainstream media tend to focus on personalized explanations for social evils. News coverage of welfare, for example, focuses more often on individual choices about education or parenthood than on economic policies that prevent full employment. This focus on "personal responsibility" for individual hardship obscures the corporate and government policies that make such hardship probable or inevitable. In order to change public policy, societal problems need to be seen as public responsibility-which is why anti-smoking advocates shifted focus from the smoker to the tobacco company.The media strategy anticipated the institutional bias of news outlets and proactively reframed the issue. Tobacco control advocates anticipated news outlets propensity to frame issues in terms of individual responsibility and proactively focused their media messages on the tobacco industry.The effort united a hard-hitting, strategic media campaign with grassroots organizing. Advocates sometimes think a media campaign can substitute for a grassroots organizing or advocacy effort-or that a real organizing effort doesn't need decent press. In reality, most winning efforts include smart media and effective organizing.In an era of scarce resources, strategic use of media is necessary to maximize the success of public interest activism. This requires that media messages and media strategies be informed by what we know about media as an institution-its unique biases and constraints. It means viewing media both as a potential tool to be used and as an institution to be held accountable. It means knowing when to use traditional PR strategies, when to employ cutting-edge reframing techniques, and when to lobby and pressure outlets for fair and representative coverage. All these tools are necessary for public interest advocates in the '90s.Kim Deterline is the executive director of We Interrupt This Message, an organization that builds capacity in public interest groups to win fair media coverage of their issues and communities.Extra! is a publication of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Inc.). FAIR is the national media watch group that offers well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship. For further information on FAIR: 130 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001; (212) 633-6700.