Coming from a background in community organizing and public policy — specifically in the anti-rape movement — I understand the importance of effective messaging in advocacy campaigns. (After all, who really wants to talk about sexual violence?) While advocating for survivors in San Francisco, I witnessed first-hand how critical stories are in tapping into people’s empathy. However, it wasn’t until my career took a turn into strategic communications and marketing that I learned just how integral a winning story is to the success of an advocacy campaign.
In the anti-rape movement, we see the work of ending violence as dismantling systems of oppression, like sexism, racism ableism, classism, homophobia, etc. At Media Cause, we conceptualize advocacy in that same vein: It’s about shifting the balance of power. Our actions and participation in advocacy that leads to the systemic and cultural change we want to see starts with the stories we tell — and believe — about our own experiences, our community, and our world.
Digital media means we have the ability to tell our stories creatively that can help shape public discourse on a scale that wasn’t previously possible. Whether you’re working to end sexual violence or advocating for unhoused residents, like our clients All In, the first building block of a successful digital advocacy campaign begins with telling an impactful story.
#1. Identify Your Own Story
My activism in the anti-rape movement began with institutionalized sexual harassment I experienced at my high school. Seeing teachers, faculty, and parents turn a blind eye fueled my passion to be part of the community response to violence.
What ignites your passion about an issue?
It’s our own stories about the cause in which we’re fighting for that connect and bond people on a peer-to-peer level. (Our Advocacy Director here at Media Cause, Clara Campbell, always emphasizes that people connect with people, not brands.) Organizations can tap into the power of personal story by uplifting the voices in their network. Elevate the stories of people closest to the problem and who are eager to share their journey.
To build a meaningful advocacy campaign, it needs to start with a real, human story of why we’re here and why people should care. Once you’ve identified your “why”, it will become more clear to everyone else while also creating the opportunity for deeper relationship-building.
#2. Understand Your Audience
Crafting a winning story is knowing who you’re trying to reach and what they’re about.
Which audience is key in taking the actions needed to achieve your advocacy goal?
Are you trying to persuade ambivalent people or activate your base?
Once this is determined, it’s time to get researching. We call this process of information-gathering the “discovery” phase. The goal of the discovery phase is to understand what your audience cares about, what their values are, and what are their anxieties or concerns.
Of course, it’s helpful to begin with the resources available to you. I find organizations like Culture Surge, The Frameworks Institute, and the Berkeley Media Studies Group to be particularly helpful in understanding the messaging research already out there. These folks do the hard work of collecting data on how people think about certain topics, like climate change and racial justice. The Center for Community Change, for example, found in their research that messaging which leans into the lens of family and progressive values of community, fairness, and freedom perform best.
Once you’ve done that initial digging, turn to your own community. Conduct stakeholder interviews, run focus groups, send out supporter surveys, look for patterns in your comments on social media, or comments on news articles related to your issue area. For our client All In, a campaign uplifting proven solutions to homelessness in San Francisco, we’re using supporter surveys to inform the content for a neighborhood resource guide intended to foster community leadership.
With this knowledge under your belt, you can begin to craft your story.
#3. Structure Your Message Effectively
The way we structure our stories is key to maximizing their impact. Our words matter, but the way we organize them is just as important.
While it may be tempting to lead with the problem, it’s actually more effective to lead with shared values. Frankly, people don’t want any more problems. And they certainly don’t want problems that seem insurmountable like sexual violence or homelessness. By leading with shared values (that you now understand because you did step #1), you disarm people and connect with them on a more human level.
Once you’ve established this commonality, you can then move into the problem, and most notably, your vision for the world you want to create. As showcased above, we appealed to our followers’ desire to help people, while providing the tools to help them do so in order to actualize our vision of a compassionate community.
Now that you have the key points which speak to each component of your message (i.e. shared values, the problem, and your vision), it’s time to identify which stories will bring your messaging to life. Strategic stories should strike an emotional chord — emotions that typically motivate people, like hope or connection.
Throughout your messaging, avoid passive language. I’ve seen this in the anti-rape movement all too often. People will say: she was assaulted instead of he assaulted her. This seemingly inconsequential difference actually removes responsibility from the person who has caused harm as they disappear from the sentence altogether. All movements can benefit from making it clear which people, or systems, are causing harm.
#4. Don’t Be Afraid to Call Out the Problem
On that note, we can’t be afraid to name who is responsible for the problem and what larger systemic pattern it exists within. If we don’t give people a tangible and compelling explanation for why our problem exists, any solution will feel just as abstract.
In the case of the All In campaign, we are intentional about framing homelessness as an intersectional issue that has roots in a myriad of social injustices. By doing so, we lay out how these systems contribute to homelessness while also giving people an “origin story”, as the FrameWork’s Institute calls it.
Many of us shy away from rocking the boat and pointing directly to the people and systems responsible for the problem. But when we don’t, we leave our audience confused and unmotivated, while we move even farther away from achieving our advocacy goals.
#5. Share Your Vision for Change
What’s most critical, however, is painting a picture of the world we want to create. (If there’s no compelling future to work towards, what’s the point of any of this?)
What does it look like to live in a world without sexual violence?
To me, it’s full of people without trauma or fear who are free to move about the world as their authentic selves as they strive to reach their full potential.
What would San Francisco look like without homelessness?
At All In, we share the successes of solutions to homelessness — like the Flex Pool Program — to show that it is possible to house all San Francisco residents.
Ultimately, we can’t simply be against something, we need to be FOR something. That means our messaging won’t be effective if we’re simply talking about reducing homelessness, we’re talking about housing people. Center what you want to create. And then give people an active role in helping you actualize this vision.
Here, we’re not asking our supporters to extend the eviction moratorium. We’re asking them to house our fellow Californians.
With digital, our stories can enter the zeitgeist on a new scale, and it’s our job to make sure those stories catch fire to activate our base and motivate supporters.
The foundation of advocacy is telling a winning story, and from it grows the most significant building block: building authentic relationships and creating a sense of community.