Human Rights, On Story, Personal

Navigating Complex Messaging and Content Plans for Issue-oriented Campaigns

For The University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program, I recently completed an extensive transmedia content plan for our Leadership through Communities and Networks course final project.  The project parameters were seemingly quite broad, asking participants to “create, and present an original work that reflects your professional ambitions and relates to a field within Communications.” The intentionally broad parameters were set to help us define our creative voice within the context of a professional community, an important aspect of success within a creative field. After overcoming creative agoraphobia (in itself a worthy exercise), I found direction in the desire to merge past and present, melding my prior experience in working for non-profits with the current impetus to harness digital media strategies in the shaping of a non-profit communication strategy.

I currently work as a media producer for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, and chose to create a transmedia content plan for the international justice work we’re conducting at the Center.  Although the Center’s work in El Salvador began several years ago, in November we launched the public-facing Unfinished Sentences component of the project. The work of the Center supports recent momentum around Salvadoran efforts for justice following the atrocities of the armed conflict from 1980-1992, while the campaign aims “ encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador.”

Essentially the problem we’re trying to solve in this case is: how do we engage a wider audience in an important issue that seems far away in time and place? One step further, how can current communication technology be utilized to best explain a complex issue and encourage public participation?

Due to the recent launch and current lack of resources, we’ve taken a relatively uni-platform approach to the work since November. The Leadership and Communities class provided the perfect opportunity for me to test newly-learned techniques to craft, and potentially execute, a comprehensive multi-platform content strategy.

The complexity of El Salvador’s history and current efforts toward justice is reason enough to deter people from engaging in the campaign, and/or consuming content. As a result, experimenting (ethically) with storytelling techniques becomes of paramount importance. Constructing the content strategy for this campaign did reveal a significant amount of insight in the process, so I’m including a list of five developing principles the effort has helped form toward navigating issue-advocacy in a networked world.

1) Accessibility: unfortunately not everyone cares about your mission or thinks it’s important.

In my close to ten years in working with non-profits, I’ve spoken with many passionate and wonderful individuals who focus on issue advocacy. Through this work I’ve noticed many people, over time, begin to communicate the details of their work in a way that reduces accessibility to the issue. The combination of passion, experience, and proximity to the issue creates a sense of urgency and nuanced knowledge that serves to segment the individual or organization from the general public. While this serves to advance the work—refinement and nuance are welcomed natural developments to any field—communicators in their respective fields interested in growing a community of action-takers must constantly re-evaluate message through the lens of someone who doesn’t think your mission is very important.

2) Simplicity, then drillability.

Only tell one story at a time, and provide multiple channels of accessibility so media consumers who are interested can choose their level of complexity. Providing a simplified, accessible, version of a complex narrative is important in drawing a larger audience into the issue; however, it’s important that this simplified narrative offers channels to fully understand the issue’s complexity of the issue, or run the risk discrediting the effort.  Sam Gregory from the acclaimed human rights media organization WITNESS, in his assessment of the successes and failures of the Kony 2012 campaign, refers to this important aspect of the issue representation as “moving to drillability alongside spreadability” (Kony 2012 through a Prism Advocacy Practices and Trends). The Kony 2012 campaign was highly effective in spreadability, though it lacked sufficient ways for viewers to dig deeper into the issue, or properly represent Ugandan voices, to name a few. In the current case of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, restructuring the complex front messaging to follow this principle could result in greater mass appeal.

3) Use content more strategically instead of producing more content.

A wealth of perspectives exists within singular subjects in combination with the abundance of social platforms, provides a natural way to seek out and divide “drillable” areas of content over various platforms.  Instead of trying to over-produce new content, think about how a story could unfold utilizing the strengths of a specific platform (Flickr vs Soundcloud vs. Pinterest, for example).

4) Provide concrete actions that strongly correlate to the narrative advocated by the campaign.

Human rights videos should provide a way for viewers to take action on the campaign. Gregory argues that “[the viewer’ s] realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media.” (2012)

One of the reasons why the Kony 2012 campaign was so successful was the actionable component of the campaign was closely tied to the narrative journey in which the film took viewers. In other words, asking viewers to share a video was directly tied to the filmmaker’s narrative of the Internet’s potential in effecting change (Gregory 2012). This notion had me examining gaps between the messaging and “Take Action” components of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, and re-envisioning how we could best create an effective space for action.

5) Not everything is an emergency. When an issue demands long-term engagement, consider supplementary content and a change in visual and communication style to coincide with narrative arcs.

About once or week, I receive a notice from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that comes off as some sort of crisis—Special interests are taking over! Debilitating defeats require immediate action! The Republicans are turning into flesh eating bacteria!  I find a similar style of messaging in emails I receive from SumofUs, CARE, the National Resources Defense Council and many others. Communicating urgency and crisis might work for short-term actions, but extending this style to long-term engagement results in issue-fatigue. Campaigns could benefit in taking cues from storytelling techniques and thinking about their issue-advocacy as a narrative arc with peaks and valleys, cautiously and respectfully including supplementary content. In the Unfinished Sentences example, oral histories about human rights violations distributed one-month, supplemented by cultural offerings, such as stories about community traditions or regional music, could reduce issue-fatigue and maintain an audience’s attention long-term. Fostering an emotional connection with a wider audience will require content that speaks to dynamism and diversity of an audience’s interests, plus that more authentically represents the spectrum led by the community we represent through our storytelling.

The influence of mass communication on activism is age-old, however the intersection of digital media technologies with activism is relatively new, and constantly being re-defined. The debate around the terminology alone—Storytelling for change, Transmedia Storytelling for Good, Digital Activism, Cyberactivism, Online Activism, Transmedia Activism—hints at the level of ambiguity found in this work: I hope continued work on this project will lead to additional discoveries.

Have any stories or issue-campaigns inspired you to take action in some form, no matter how simple? What about the messaging motivated you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

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