Is a process for bringing people together to act in common self-interest, community organizing presents an interesting and challenging context for strategic communications work. Transcending organizational boundaries and focusing on the creation of broad coalitions, popular movements aim to build a large base of support, an effort that can be significantly bolstered by effective communications. However, given the values-based, inclusive, and participatory nature of organizing, generating shared messages can be difficult, to say the least. In this sense, community organizing might be viewed as the ultimate test of strategic communications. In its work with hundreds of community groups across the country, the SPIN Project has observed a common set of questions emerging for organizers embarking on and evaluating communications efforts. These are vital strategic questions with serious political implications. The goal of this article is to identify these strategic choices so they are made consciously and deliberately, in both social movements and individual organizations.
Communications can help organizers achieve concrete changes that improve people’s lives. Strategic, aggressive, planned, and proactive public relations can make a difference in reframing debate and achieving political, social, and cultural goals. If an issue has been covered well in the paper or the six o’clock news, organizers are much more likely to find success at the door. The reverse also holds true, ideally resulting in a complementary relationship between communications and traditional organizing. Communications can also shape the organizing environment by altering the political dialog among decision-makers. If a journalist comes knocking on your target’s door with specific questions about the issue, it can shape the context and terms of the debate.
The following questions have arisen for longtime community organizers beginning to use communications tools to support their organizing goals. This list is by no means exhaustive, it is simply meant to stimulate further thinking and dialogue.
Are communications and organizing separate tasks? Can a communications strategy ever exist without an organizing strategy, and vice versa?
In the twenty-first century, communications and organizing are inextricably intertwined. Organizers have known for a long time that one of their main tasks is to engineer strategic choices about who says what to whom and when. Communicators face essentially the same task. In a way, the main difference between communicators and organizers lies in the tools they use. Organizers specialize in one-on-one interactions, while communicators tend to focus on one-to-many interactions. While communicators can create economies of scale as they move the message toward mass audiences, nothing can replace the quality of the interaction created by the organizer. Organizers can address the hunger for community and belonging—which is in part created by what people see and hear in the media, and the sheer volume of information coming at them in the digital age. A good offensive needs to employ both methods—high volume communications to shape the campaign environment, and high touch interactions to help develop deep personal commitments to our issues.
How do you balance the messages that work with the base and the messages that will move audiences beyond our base?
A central tenet of communications is “Tailor your message to your target audience.” A central tenet of organizing is “Speak to people where they are.” These are essentially the same principle, yet the divide over messaging can become one of the toughest questions in campaign planning. Out of respect for the base, organizers often want to use only messages that resonate with them. While it is vital to remain true to the analysis and voice of constituents, base-driven messaging can sometimes result in messages that only work with the base, and the truth is that the people with the power to grant demands will often be put off by the messages that resonate with the base.
Therefore, it is vital to constantly evaluate our work from the perspective of the target and the broader audiences we are trying to move to action. So the question must evolve from “What do we want to say?” to “How can we say what we want to say in a way that people can hear?” Ultimately, the way to respect one’s base is to build power and win concrete change. Messages that work at the base and beyond are one of the most powerful tools organizers have to help achieve those wins.
Race and Class: With which do you lead?
The media climate has been largely hostile to low-income people and communities of color. Organizers must find ways to lead with a racial justice message that includes a role for allies and progressives who can speak to policies that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Ultimately, racial justice is necessary if we are to achieve economic equality in America, and vice versa. It’s a case of both/and—because if economic justice is your primary goal, it’s not going to happen with people of color suffering from disproportionate levels of poverty, hunger, and unemployment.
Of course, this is a question that ties directly to messaging. Your base may have a very clear racial analysis on the issue, but your target may or may not be ready to hear that analysis. Organizers want to speak the truth lived every day by their constituents, want to speak from the heart of their own experience, want to share their analysis of society. And they want to win. Over the long haul, it may mean that they have to creatively balance those parallel desires. The desire to reflect authentic voices is not necessarily at odds with the need to craft frames and messages that effectively influence our target audiences.
Many community organizers are concerned that communications will hijack their organizing. They worry that integrating communications into their goals will lead to a campaign aimed at the media rather than at the people. It doesn’t have to be that way. In a well-thought-out community organizing process, both communications and organizing must always serve your basic strategic goals.
When designing strategy, the practice of communications brings organizers some distinct advantages. First, communications can sometimes drive much speedier change than traditional organizing. This is not to say that communications is the “magic bullet” of social change, but there are times where a well-placed op-ed or TV evening news story can affect your target more quickly than a community mobilization. But, of course, these speedy strikes must be driven by the broader strategy and rooted in organizing goals.
The second advantage of communications is that it can help organizers sharpen their abilities to preach beyond the choir. In base-driven organizing, we focus on what’s good for us and our community—and we primarily speak to our community. The practice of strategic communications demands that we communicate to decision-makers or the people who influence them—and these are often people outside our base. Mainstream communications is a tool to link the interests of the base to the interests of those beyond the base.
Communicators and organizers constantly wrestle with the question, “Who is the face and voice of the campaign?” For communicators, this question becomes, “Who should be the spokesperson?”
Many organizers fear that a PR-based approach to social action will result in prominent roles for spokespeople who do not represent the base or, if they are from the base, who speak in a way that is not authentic to the base. In a good communications effort, spokespeople are selected from the base and from other strategic populations. They may not always speak the language of the base (though they often will), but they always serve its interests.
One of the most difficult and worthwhile questions in organizing is, “What are the best strategies to identify and select spokespeople in a way that both builds leadership and moves the issue politically?” Generally, it is best to at least train spokespeople from each of the following categories—though there may be other important voices for your campaign:
Organizational leadership: You need someone who can be the official voice of the organization. Sometimes that’s the executive director or the board chair. No matter who takes the role, you need to have someone who is authorized to speak for the organization.
Your base: Sometimes it’s disastrous to have a talking head executive director on camera; impassioned unpaid activists speaking from their own experience with the issue have far more potential to make for a compelling interview. In fact, some organizations have a policy that staff members never speak on the record to the press, saving that job for members. Training your base in spokesperson skills enhances their understanding of the strategy, develops their leadership skills, and ultimately builds power for those who often do not have it.
Allies: Spokespeople need not be campaign leaders—or even members of the organization. In fact, it’s often better if they come from outside the organization. Think creatively about the voices who ring true with your targets, and who can bring a new angle to the issue. Sometimes you need to borrow credibility from your friends in the early stages of the campaign. Identify and leverage the trusted sources in your community: doctors, small business leaders, seniors, and others who can open your issue up to new audiences.
How do we successfully implement communications, given our limited capacity and the demands on our resources? How much capacity is required to effectively communicate beyond the base? And why invest those resources in communications instead of putting them into base organizing?
Organizations should budget for a communications staff position, communications materials, media databases, and other communications expenses. If you think you don’t have the resources to do this, then consider converting an existing staff position to a communications position. Or use some of your resources to write a communications-specific grant. Contact your current funders to see if they fund communications. Be creative about how you include communications in program funding requests. Many foundations expect communications to be written into your budget, and some even use it as an evaluation criteria for proposals.
The critical question is this: Would you make more progress if you had the communications capacity to support the organizing work? Ultimately, this is not an either/or investment—investing in communications makes the organizing more effective, as it builds power and credibility for the organization and its work.
How will we maintain legitimacy in the eyes of our base when working with mainstream media? Shouldn’t we focus on the ethnic and community media that our base trusts?
The answer—as it often is—is both/and. Speak to your base via outlets they consider legitimate. Address your other targets via the media they trust, often mainstream or trade media. We have a responsibility to keep the issues important to our communities in front of the mainstream media. Involve your base in media work and remember that ultimately, a strategic media placement will only serve to further legitimize your work to your base and the broader community.
What’s more important, advancing the issue, or ensuring that our organization is cited in the press?
The first duty of the organizer is to move the issue forward to political success—in the end, the victory is usually more important than who gets the credit. But it’s often easier to achieve those victories if your organization is perceived as a credible, powerful player on the issue. From a communications perspective, it’s about building brand—a strong organizational identity can transform your organizing successes into future credibility. When your organization is mentioned by name in the press, it can empower your community and inspire people to trust the organization. A powerful organization with a well-known brand can also make a campaign target sit up and take notice. If the word “brand” sounds too much like slick corporate mumbo-jumbo, think of the concept as “identity” or “reputation.” By leveraging communications to create an organizational identity that the community knows, trusts, and supports, organizers build power to help achieve their goals.
How can a coalition communicate in a unified way? Will more moderate coalition allies water down our message? Are coalitions just superficial alliances to build power, or can they build deeper political partnerships as well?
As all organizers know, coalitions are essential to real change, but their politics can be tricky. This dilemma extends to communications. Many organizers are wary that communicating with a coalition will necessarily weaken their message. This does not have to be the case.
There are many available strategies in coalition communications. Certainly one is to develop a unified, common-ground message agreed upon by everyone in the coalition. But messages created by everyone often please no one.
Another strategy is for different members of a coalition to communicate a similar core message, but in ways that feel authentic to them. If everyone has a role to play in a coalition and they can play that role comfortably and authentically, the coalition can lead to deeper alliances.
Hopefully these questions will spark a conversation in your organizations and coalitions, and help you wrestle with the creative tensions inherent in social-change work. Furthermore, you may come to view strategic communications as a complement to, and a vital part of, your work.
Holly Minch is the director of the SPIN Project , a nonprofit communications consulting firm that specializes in working with community based organizations. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Social Policy, a publication of The American Institute for Social Justice and the ACORN Institute. The full text of this article here.