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.

Video

Seeking Truth, Justice, and Reparations in El Salvador

A mini-documentary highlighting the collaborative work between the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and partners in El Salvador for truth, justice and reparations in El Salvador. By Alex Montalvo, Revelriter Media.

Excerpted from The Center For Human Rights at the University of Washington

“Today, democratic governance in El Salvador is threatened by crises of crime and violence, driven by the longstanding problems of poverty and social exclusion but rendered a potent threat to governability by the widespread perception that the institutions of justice are inoperable. In a sad commentary on the dividends of purported peace, many Salvadorans report that things are worse today than they were during the 12-year civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives.

Despite the signing of peace accords that called for fundamental social and political reforms, no systematic reform of the justice sector has been undertaken, and those in power continue to enjoy the ability to intercede in justice proceedings in the interests of preserving their impunity. There has been no justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the Salvadoran civil war, nor any extensive investigation to establish truth or accountability in such cases. In this sense, the country’s fragile democracy is built on an untenable silence; until Salvadoran society addresses the systematic violations of human rights that rent asunder the social fabric for so many years, the country’s justice system will remain unable to confront the crimes of the past or present.

Now is a pivotal moment for a concerted push for truth, justice, and reparations in El Salvador, involving strategic coordination between Salvadoran victims’ organizations and international actors. The CHR, in collaboration with the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at the Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), is developing a project to apply important international justice precedents to the Salvadoran context, through the concerted application of national and international pressures for justice and a strengthening of grassroots movements within the country.”

Video

Seattle-ites Renew Fight for Justice in El Salvador’s Dirty Wars

The associated video (below) was produced in collaboration with Dacia Saenz for International Human Rights Day. Originally published in The Seattle Globalist on December 10, 2013.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador from 1980-1992.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador for the annual Victim’s Meeting (Encuentro de Victimas). Photo by Alex Montalvo

The solidarity that distinguished Seattle’s relationship to El Salvador in the 1980’s is reigniting once again. Last Thursday, representatives from 10 organizations met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Seattle in support of a renewed movement for justice in El Salvador.

The event, La Voz de la Justicia: Human Rights at a Critical Juncture in El Salvador, was organized through the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR)and the Social Justice Committee of St. Patrick’s Church. It brought together groups with a long history of supporting human rights throughout the region.

So why now, more than 20 years after the end of official hostilities in El Salvador?

In early September, the Attorney General’s office in El Salvador announced that for the first time in the country’s history, investigations would be opened into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime atrocities. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the constitutionality of the amnesty law.

A decision on the amnesty law is now expected literally any day,” says Angelina Godoy, Director of UWCHR. “These are things victims have been struggling to achieve for decades. There’s a sense of real possibility now, one that didn’t exist before.”

Photo of a man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reading a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador.

A man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador. The sombrero on the placard was worn by the son during his death. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

From 1980 to 1992, over 75,000 civilians died in the bloody armed conflict in El Salvador. Thousands more were brutally tortured or “disappeared.” Hostilities officially came to an end with peace accords in 1992, and as part of the peace process, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission was tasked with investigating wartime atrocities. Their investigation found approximately 85% of the violence occurred at the hands of the Salvadoran government.

But just five days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report in March, 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed an Amnesty Law that has since been used to effectively shield people in positions of power from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Salvadorans have been fighting for justice and reparations ever since.

The sad truth for Americans is that the armed conflict was heavily funded by our government. In an attempt to make El Salvador a leading example of Cold War policy, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran government upwards of $5 billion, despite awareness of government involvement in egregious human rights abuses.

But concerned citizens across the globe reacted strongly to these abuses and the subsequent involvement of the U.S. government.

Seattle, in particular, was front and center in the movement to stop the war. In 1983 voters passed the “Peace in Central America Initiative” which declared opposition to the United States support of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and established a Citizens’ Commission on Central America that included over twenty local organizations like El Centro de La Raza, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the University of Washington. Many Seattle parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, providing shelter to refugees from the Central American conflicts.

Today, the University of Washington is back to supporting human rights in the region. Since 2011, UWCHR and The Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in San Salvador have been collaborating on activities aimed at addressing core challenges to the rule of law in El Salvador.

Though there have been a lot of positive developments in El Salvador recently, there are also strong signs that those who oppose the justice movement are still willing to resort to criminality to protect themselves. At the end of September, 2013, the Catholic Church closed down one of the country’s main human rights organizations, leaving the victims in cases like the massacre at El Mozote suddenly without access to legal representation, and even without access to their own case files.

Even groups who search for missing children are being targeted. During a recent trip to El Salvador, we documented the emotional return of Marina Lopez (adopted name Marina Llewelyn) to Arcatao, El Salvador, for the first time since her childhood.

Marina had been taken from her family by the Salvadoran military, but was reunited through the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda, who work to discover the whereabouts of disappeared children and reunite them with surviving family members. Pro-Búsqueda conducted research for over two decades to find Marina.

Sadly, just three days after Marina’s reunion, Pro-Búsqueda was attacked and its offices firebombed, destroying some three-quarters of their files. These recent attacks are what prompted the recent “La Voz” event held at St. Patricks.

The City of Seattle is taking notice of local efforts for justice in El Salvador once again.Today, on International Human Rights Day, The UW Center for Human Rights is set to receive an award from the City. Godoy says she sees the award as recognition not just of the UWCHR, but of all the UW students, and the many people in El Salvador who have been involved in the effort.

“What makes our work so powerful is the way it’s rooted in partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles, folks like the committee of survivors we just met with in Arcatao, El Salvador,” Godoy said. “I wish those women and men could also step up to the podium and be recognized, for they’re really the ones who are teaching us about what human rights mean.”

For more information about human rights in El Salvador, and to demand a full investigation into the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, please visit www.unfinishedsentences.org.