Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Messaging and messagee: rethinking activist communication strategy

In a recent planning meeting, during a discussion on campaign "messaging", I chipped in that I was somewhat agnostic about the "messaging". The response (I forget who from) was that "messaging is 80% of our communication" or words to that effect.

Grammar and etymology nuts can argue about the value of using "message" as a verb. It's not new, anyway, being also used to describe the action of sending a text message by mobile phone and possibly older than that.

But in politics-speak, "messaging" is the shorthand for our public relations discourse. Our explanation of ourselves and what we want. It encompasses - or conflates - the old lefty categories of propaganda, agitation and demands.

This new word that I keep hearing (and the news, to me, that getting it right it constitutes 80% of our communication success) has me slightly uneasy. Clive Hamilton articulates my feelings to a degree in his speech to the 2011 Climate Summit.

The third of his reasons for the failure of environmentalism is that

...over the past two decades environmental activism has been professionalised. The professionalisation of politics has seen a sharp decline in membership of the mainstream parties and the rise of a “political class” of career politicians, staffers, spin doctors and apparatchiks.

Some environmental NGOs have simply adapted to this new landscape. The “political class” have become the new targets of their activities, so NGOs have abandoned activism for the techniques of lobbying and media management and are now dominated by people with lobbying and media skills.

In other words, they have become insiders. As insiders they are subject to all of the pressures and inducements the powerful can mobilise — access to ministers, consultations, the attention of journalists and so on.
The term "messaging" comes from those "techniques of lobbying and media management". It's worrying because it makes getting a hearing (from the "messagee" if we extend the terminology!) central. This is indeed important, and if we were only to focus on demands (i.e. what we want), it would be very easy to completely fail to strike a chord with our audience. Sure, the left is very good at that particular error.

But it's still not the whole of the issue. It's not just "getting a hearing", obviously we have to be true to what we actually want (or what climate science demands). But even more - I don't think that the "messaging" is 80%, I think if anything the "messagee" is 80%.

Too much marketing strategy risks turning us into salespeople. I am not a salesperson. I don't want to be "selling" our ideas as though we are discrete consumer units not people.

As an aside, the professionalisation of publicity extends to other more technical areas. When I first joined campaign groups some years ago, before the internet or universal computer ownership, leaflets were assigned generally to one of two rare categories in the group: the computer whiz with an Apple Mac for desktop publishing; or the artist who could design by hand. The rest of us, if we did it, laboured with Letraset transfer sheets, typewriters and cut-and-paste excercises. Even that was too much fuss for one experienced campaigner, who said we should just write our message (event description, time and place) on a piece of paper with a marker pen and photocopy it - then get out and start handing the leaflet to people!

The basic task of "messaging" to me is talking to people.If you listen to the people you talk to, each one is likely to be receptive to a slightly different "message". That is, communication is a two-way street. We're also not just providing a community information service, or signing up passive supporters and donors like the traditional environment NGOs have done.

We are trying to provide an option to people: an empowering option to take action on their concerns. It's here that I depart from some of Clive Hamilton's comments, by the way. He says
...in the case of climate change the public has adopted a range of strategies to avoid the truth.
They don’t want real action on climate change; they only want symbolic actions that require nothing of them.

Sometimes coaxing the public to your point of view reaches an immovable barrier. Sometimes people must be jolted out of their complacency by militancy, even if that means a period of rancour, turmoil and danger.
Now, it depends exactly who Clive means by "the public" but assuming it means Jo or Joe Average, I think he's wrong. His earlier argument about the professionalisation of politics actually provides the truth: most people ignore official "politics" because they realise on some level that it's bogus - and besides, there's no space in it for them.

Jolting people out of their complacency is certainly worthwhile in some cases, but the majority of Australian people favour action on climate change, even with all the publicity for flat-earth climate change deniers in the media. Just check these poll results. If there's to be rancour, it shouldn't be directed at the people we're trying to mobilise, if that's what Clive means.

Perhaps he means politicians and "the elite" when he says "the public". I don't know. On one level I have no problem with jolting them, but if we don't organise and mobilise the broader public (civil society, the working classes, call it what you will) then any "jolting" of the elite hinges on their ability and willingness to listen to us. In this sense it's no more than a different variety of lobbying - with attention grabbing media stunts and civil disobedience instead of polite letters and petitions.

So back to our "messaging". The point of "messaging" is to involve people. People power is our currency. We don't aim to mobilise the public (or voters, as politicians would have it) as yet another way of demonstrating to the elites that they must listen to us. That is one possible interpretation of the "messaging" terminology in the context of professionalised insider-politics.

Climate change is more serious than that. We need to mobilise and empower the masses to demonstrate to the elites that we will stop their fossil fuel burning juggernaut and build a zero carbon world whether they like it or not. They can join us, or go to an international climate justice tribunal. That is the message we need to send.

And for a member of the public that we speak to, someone who is concerned about climate change, that indication of our seriousness is probably a better message than almost any other.


  1. Join us and do what? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them....

    I'm thinking that the "messaging" has to be a package which is more than 'getting a hearing'.

    That's the conundrum: what's the package?

    The Greens pander to "symbolic actions that require nothing of them" but I think there has to be a much better way to engineer the "act locally/think globally " option.

    That's' the challenge. So while I agree with your argument -- what does that mean?

  2. I think my main point is that endless meetings arguing about the finer points of wording and what graphic to use on a leaflet would be time better spent handing out said leaflet!

    What's the package? Find a role in the local climate action group, and build our movement! etc


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