Looking around your community or the world, you may be compelled to fight to remedy injustice. Welcome to advocacy. However, an earnest belief does not a great advocate make, alone. You must be strategic in your message down to the word use or the frame you use. Convincing one person, let alone an entire community to change or take an action, is like growing roses in sand, incredibly difficult and requiring careful coaxing in a hostile environment. We advocates fight not just antagonism and apathy, but shortening attention spans and a crowded media environment. I got my Master’s Degree in Political Communication to hue my communication and passion into weapons of persuasion for good. With that in mind, here are 10 pieces of advice for effectively affecting change.
1. Raising awareness doesn’t work
So, someone is aware of a problem, but they don’t know what to do or how to help. They’ll likely forget or just shake their heads thinking “what a shame,” and do nothing. You need to focus on calls to action — real things that have real consequences. You’ll necessarily raise awareness of the issue while persuading your audience to share, sign up, donate, boycott, attend, or vote for your cause or candidate. This also means you need to set concrete goals for yourself, doors knocked, editorials or blog posts written, phone calls made, or money raised. This also means you can fall short of those goals, which may be intimidating, but even failure is better than pursuing ill-defined, unfocused advocacy.
2. Know and define your audience
Using social media isn’t the best way to reach older people and fliers have a limited range. How you communicate needs to be dictated by who you want to reach.
Let’s say you’re trying to start a slow fashion group and you’re growing your email list. First, you would identify your primary audience, say women aged 18 – 35 who are interested in fashion. Then, you’d find secondary audiences, people that would interact with your primary audience or also be interested in your messaging to that first audience. This could include men of the same ages, environmental activists, or workers’ rights advocates.
Finally, you should identify influentials or decision makers within these audiences. In my hypothetical, that would include fashion influencers, activists, and personalities sympathetic to your cause. These people should be specifically courted because they act as megaphones for you, their power will amplify your message.
3. Craft a compelling narrative
You’re likely a true believer. Facts and figures are exciting (or more likely, alarming) to you, but they’re not enough to get others to act. That’s why you need a compelling narrative to contextualize those facts and figures and present them in an appealing way. If you’re advocating for human rights, use personal stories from refugees or garment workers. The human face, emotional aspect of the issue should be your icing; the facts, how to act, and what needs to change is the cake. You don’t present that until after you’ve already hooked the audience and convinced them that change is necessary. They become upset, want to do something, and you turn around with something they can do right now.
4. Use your audience’s worldview to your advantage
You’re not going to change any minds if you expect your audience to alter their entire worldview or ideology. Some people are far gone, like radical climate deniers, but others could be persuaded slowly and strategically. If you’re trying to get people to vote for a conservation candidate and you’re speaking to someone who’s typically conservative, you don’t want to talk about global warming and ecological destruction. Instead, talk about how pollution hurts neighborhood children and how infrastructure will be damaged and cost taxpayers millions to repair if extreme weather events continue their onslaught. Find what they already believe, in this case fiscal responsibility and the importance of family, and find how that connects to your issue.
5. Control your framing
This is very similar to the last point. Framing is how you contextualize an issue. Planned Parenthood offers cheap or free healthcare to those who need it; they murder babies. These are two very different ways to talk about the same thing. You need to make your frame more powerful than others, or your opponents will run away with your message and rebrand your candidate or issue for ill. You should make a frame that aligns with your audience’s preconceived notions, presents your issue in a positive light, and is shareable or memorable enough to ideally outlast any negative frames.
6. Understand your place
If you’re advocating on behalf of a group, and are not yourself a part of that group, you need to understand that your advocacy isn’t about you. As an ally, you need to listen and elevate women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community, immigrants, or whatever group for which you advocate. Remember, this isn’t about you, and if you try to center yourself in discussions, you’re doing a disservice to the fight for equality. Share others’ stories, ask your followers to follow them, or raise money for lawyer’s fees. No matter what you do, don’t talk about what you’re doing, how it affects you, or how you’ve helped in the past. Advocacy isn’t about ego.
7. Be memorable and stand out
Your content and campaign will be presented to overworked people with overcrowded feeds; you need to stand out somehow. That doesn’t mean do something crazy, but you should study the landscape, see what people are already doing, and see how you can be different.
If you’re advocating for garment workers on Instagram, you’ll probably be joined by a bunch of influencers (I have feelings about that) who are conventionally attractive and present professional photos of themselves in ethical clothing. To stand out, maybe post a more true to life photo, or do a series of posts of the workers themselves, or demonstrate how the textiles are made. If you stand out, you might not get the most “likes” but you can grow a following and be more persuasive. In the nonprofit sector, people often set things like social media, graphic design, or website design aside, but those “marketing” tactics work for greedy corporate entities, why shouldn’t they also be used for social change? There’s an entire field in strategic communication called Social Marketing in which traditional marketing strategies like glossy ad campaigns are used to persuade people from dangerous or problematic behavior. Just because it seems disingenuous doesn’t mean it’s not effective. The content will determine whether an ad is trying to manipulate or inform its audience.
8. Defend your logical ground
You need to guarantee that your campaign is grounded in peer-reviewed facts from reliable sources. This will not only give you credibility to people who will look to you as a leader, but you need to have information to combat your opponents who will attempt to derail you through questioning the validity of you, your claims, or the importance of the issue as a whole. While the “hook” of your advocacy should be emotional, the base of it should be factual. Keep the facts on hand, memorize some, and link to reputable sources when your supporters or detractors ask questions.
9. Interacting with trolls is for the onlookers
To that point, interacting with trolls is a fruitless endeavor, but you should still do it in limited doses to convince onlookers that your case is the better one. Instead of convincing them, you’re poking holes in their argument and making their side seem unreasonable while yourself morally superior. Depending on your brand you could reply snarkily or politely, and present them with facts or break down their arguments. It’s not worth arguing with ad-hominem attacks unless you think you can use it to your advantage (like quote tweeting a nasty comment and say “this is the best my opponents can do, they have to resort to name calling”). They’ll keep responding to try to irritate you, so only engage for a few back and forth comments, then ignore the rest.
10. Be authentic
People can tell if you’re uncomfortable or acting, so never try to be something you’re not. In your messaging, you shouldn’t try to imitate another campaign or force certain images onto you or the campaign that don’t feel organic. It will seem plastic, and at worse, will undermine your credibility. If you’re passionate, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and strategic in your messaging and branding, you’ll be able to make positive social change without having to change yourself in the process.
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