For more than 25 years, at the Public Media Center in San Francisco, Herb Gunther helped create some of the most effective media campaigns for environmental protection, human rights, and public health. Gunther first began distilling his experience into a codified set of principles in 1985, partly to help PMC’s clients understand his philosophy, but also to teach other public interest groups how to communicate more effectively. Over time the words have changed but the principles themselves have remained the same. Does his list of 10 Principles require updating given the influence of the web on public communications. His answer, in a word, is no.
1. Communicate values.
Effective advocacy is predicated upon the strong, clear assertion of basic values, moral authority, and leadership.
Americans need to hear there are certain things that are good or bad for the country. Absent that kind of moral clarity, people aren’t going to pay attention to the details. The presidential campaign in 2000 is a classic example of this principle in action. “When Gore got up, he spoke almost nothing but values. He presented himself as a good man, a man who followed his conscience." See also Framing Issues in the Media and Framing Interconnectedness (pdf).
2. American political discourse is fundamentally oppositional.
People are more comfortable being against something than for it.
Negative ratings for candidates didn’t exist 25 years ago. Today these ratings are routinely gathered by pollsters and closely scrutinized by the media. President Clinton’s re-election in 1996 was powered more by votes against Bob Dole than for the incumbent.
3. Most issues are decided by winning over the undecided.
Typically, the percentage on one side of an issue is offset by a roughly equivalent percentage on the other side. It is the undecided or conflicted percentage left in the middle that determines the outcome.
When an issue (such as abortion) polarizes strongly, public interest groups should not waste time and resources trying to convert true believers at either end of the ideological spectrum. As Gunther says, “Our fight is for the muddled middle.”
4. More than anything else, Americans want to be on the winning side.
The dominant factor influencing the undecided to choose one side of the other is the perception that their joining the winning side. So, for advocacy campaigns, act like a winner – project confidence, assert the moral high ground, and aggressively confront the opposition. “Americans don’t like to feel stupid. Going for the winner is a reflection that their self-esteem constantly has to be stroked and renewed.” As evidence, Gunther points to post-election polls which consistently show more voters claiming to have voted for the winner (as many as 15%, in fact) than actually pulled the lever.
5. Make enemies, not friends.
Identify the opposition and attack their motives. Point your finger at them and name names.
“A fundamental tenet of democracy is accountability,” Gunther emphatically states, adding “Naming names is all about accountability.” He proudly points to PMC’s campaign against the proposed theme park, “Disney’s America,” that featured an advertisement portraying CEO Michael Eisner as “The Man Who Would Change History.” The vilification of Eisner was critical in forcing Disney to cancel plans for the park. Public interest groups should employ a similar strategy more often. “CEO’s are confined to a statesman like role. This limits their ability to fire back. Don’t be afraid to attack!”
6. American mass culture is fundamentally alienating and disempowering.
Most people don't feel they can make a difference or that they count, and they feel unqualified or unprepared to make important decisions about complex social questions. “Most people don’t think they belong to this country in one way or another.” Several factors stoke these feelings of alienation: racial and ethnic divisiveness, class conflict, the sheer size of the country, and technology that leaps ahead faster than our wisdom to use it. Consequently, it’s more important than ever for public interest groups to educate, empower, and motivate their target audiences as part of their campaigns.
7. Target a few key audiences of opinion leaders, rather than a mass audience. “When surveys say the majority of Americans feel they don’t count, why spend so much of your resources trying to talk to them?” It’s better find and educate a select group who will deliver a message for you. And how many people are we talking about? “Nine times out of ten, you need to convince about a thousand people.”
8. Responsible extremism sets the agenda.
To move the media, you must communicate as responsible extremists, not as reasonable moderates. “What Rosa Parks did was a responsible extremist act in her time. Aside from the anarchists, what happened in Seattle around WTO was responsible extremism.” Mainstream groups rely on the work of controversial or so-called “fringe” groups to appear reasonable and moderate. The Sierra Club could negotiate settlements with lumber companies because Earth First took the path of responsible extremism.
9. Social consensus must continually be asserted and defended.
Social advocacy is an ongoing process that doesn't end with the passage of a law or resolution. Gunther says, “I have to characterize citizenship in this country as a state of somnambulism.” Given this state of affairs, advocacy groups must be in the business of always trying to wake people up. David Brower, founder of Earth Island Institute, once said, “There are no victories in the environmental movement, only stays of execution.” Principle #9 applies to all public interest issues.
10. Strategic diversity is essential to the success of social movements.
“Biological diversity is nature’s strategy for survival, and we need to recognize the message for our movement.” Multiple, independent advocacy campaigns on a single issue should be encouraged, monocultural efforts should be avoided. When you put out a single message, you make it very easy for the other side to figure out how to respond and how to take you out. You also fail to recognize that you probably have to move several constituencies at once — the public, your own group, members of groups with similar interests, business leaders, politicians, and others. Each constituency deserves its own highly-targeted message.
11. Focus on telling stories rather that citing facts
Stories engage what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls our cognitive System 1, our always active source of belief. Facts and statistics address cognitive System 2, our lazy and frequently inactive source of disbelief. See Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.