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Category: Strategic Framework

Do you want to “Raise Awareness”? Well, stop, or it might be a dumb way to die.

Ever thought of dumb ways to die?

Watch this!

So, is this a good or a bad campaign?

This article from the Standford Social Innovation Review shares precious insights on this, and on many other aspects of how to make a successful campaign.

It’s worth reading it in full, but for the busy ones, here’s the digest:

There is a widely held belief within the campaigning world that hostility towards an issue, or a wrong behavior, is quite simply due to a lack of knowledge. So campaigns must “raise awareness”.

Raising awareness about something that wasn’t known before can be a useful tactic when it’s part of a larger effort to drive social change. But to truly drive change, we have to consider the science that shows there is a more strategic, effective, and focused way to drive social change. In fact, research suggests that not only do campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness, but sometimes they can actually end up doing more harm than good. When done wrong, an awareness campaign carries four specific risks: it might lead to no action; It might reach the wrong audience; it might create harm; and it could generate a backlash.

So what makes a campaign right?

This articles argues that there are there are four essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign: target your audience as narrowly as possible; create compelling messages with clear calls to action; develop a theory of change; and use the right messenger.

Even if this sounds obvious to you, this articles builds its case on many examples of campaigns, and this alone makes it worth reading.


Stop Raising Awareness Already

Welcome to February in America. You’re no doubt aware that this is HIV/ AIDS awareness month and Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. February also includes Singles Awareness Day, American Heart Month, AMD/ Low Vision Awareness Month, National Children’s Dental Health Month, International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month, African Heritage & Health Week, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, Condom Week, Eating Disorders Awareness and Screening Week, National “Wear Red” Day for women’s heart health, World Cancer Day, and Give Kids a Smile Day, to mention just a few.

Unsure what to do with all your awareness? You’re not alone. Or maybe you’re still catching up on all the calls to action from January’s days of awareness: What with it being Co-dependency Awareness Month, Glaucoma Awareness Month, National Mentoring Month, Poverty in America Awareness Month, Radon Action Month, Self-Help Group Awareness Month, Stalking Awareness Month, Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Volunteer Blood Donor Month, and Weight Loss Awareness Month all at the same time, your to-do list is probably full.

For those working on a cause they care about, the first instinct is often to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the problem. When we care about an issue or a cause, it’s natural to want others to care as much as we do. Because, we reason, surely if people knew that you’re more likely to die in an accident if you don’t wear a seat belt, they’d wear their seat belt. And if people only knew that using condoms is critical to preventing the spread of disease, then they would use one every time.

That instinct is described by communication theory as the Information Deficit Model. The term was introduced in the 1980s to describe a widely held belief about science communication—that much of the public’s skepticism about science and new technology was rooted, quite simply, in a lack of knowledge. And that if the public only knew more, they would be more likely to embrace scientific information.

That perspective persists, not just in the scientific community but also in the world of nonprofits, marketing, and public relations. Public relations texts frequently cite awareness, attitude, and action objectives. Marketing students learn that awareness precedes action. And many of the foremost public relations and advertising agencies still report results to clients in the form of impressions—the number of people who were exposed to the message.

If the goal is solely to increase knowledge of an issue, then an awareness campaign can work just fine. But is it ever enough for people to simply know more about something? If, for example, the goal were to raise awareness among new parents of the importance of immunizing their children, you wouldn’t be satisfied if parents were simply aware. You’d want to be sure that they were also having their children immunized for the right diseases at the right age.

Or say you want people to be aware of the importance of being prepared for a hurricane. There’s a potentially life-threatening gulf between being aware of the importance of being prepared for a hurricane and actually having several cases of water set aside and an escape plan that your entire family knows and understands. Maybe your awareness goals are attached to something more abstract or where the solutions are less clear—such as the effect of implicit bias on workplace diversity or the growing threat of global warming. But in each of those cases, specific actions are available that can overcome both of those threats.

Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.

How Awareness Campaigns Fail

Making the public more aware of an issue can, of course, be a critical step in creating an environment where change is possible. Would there have been so much discourse around income inequality this past US presidential election if the Occupy movement hadn’t stirred up national attention in 2011? Would we have known the meaning behind #blacklivesmatter if there hadn’t been a consistent effort to make known racialized police brutality? Or would there be a discussion about transgender rights without exposure to stories through television shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent?

Raising awareness about something that wasn’t known before can be a useful tactic when it’s part of a larger effort to drive social change. But to truly drive change, we have to consider the science that shows there is a more strategic, effective, and focused way to drive social change. In fact, research suggests that not only do campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness, but sometimes they can actually end up doing more harm than good.

Before exploring the most effective ways to create awareness, it’s important to understand the ineffective and even harmful effects that awareness can have. When done wrong, an awareness campaign carries four specific risks: it might lead to no action; It might reach the wrong audience; it might create harm; and it could generate a backlash. We will examine each of these risks in turn.

When Awareness Campaigns Lead to No Action

It’s easy to assume that sharing information in an engaging way is enough to motivate people to adopt new behaviors. However, research suggests that this is not the case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Zombie Apocalypse campaign provides an instructive example.

In May 2011, Dave Daigle, who leads communications for some of the CDC’s preparedness work, released a campaign to raise the public’s awareness about the need to prepare for a potential emergency, such as a terrorist attack, flood, or earthquake. He was frustrated that the CDC had used the same messages every year to promote awareness of the importance of being prepared with little effect. “We have a great message here about preparedness, and I don’t have to tell you that preparedness and public health are not the sexiest topics,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic at the time.1 So he took a bold and creative approach to gain attention for a serious problem: humor.

The CDC started with a blog post, “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” that made the case that if you can protect yourself from the living dead, you can also survive a fire or earthquake.2 It was smart, funny, relevant, and connected—all the things a great campaign aspires to. Within minutes of its publication, more than 30,000 people tried to read the post, causing the CDC’s website to crash. The post trended on Twitter worldwide and was covered by CNN and The Wall Street Journal.

Following its viral success, the CDC launched a social media campaign informing people of how to prepare for a disaster by creating an emergency kit. The campaign had the tagline “Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Prepared.” In this case, the CDC wasn’t simply trying to raise awareness. There was a clear call to action—to make a kit. Using comedy and pop culture, the CDC was able to reach hundreds of thousands of people, and it certainly raised awareness—at least about the campaign.

But did extensive awareness and exposure lead people to actually make a kit? Julia Fraustino, a strategic communication and public relations scholar at West Virginia University, would say no. Fraustino wondered whether a campaign like the CDC’s could change behavior, so she designed a study to see whether campaigns that used humor to get people’s attention and increased awareness would also get them to act.3 Fraustino discovered what she called “a zombie dilemma.” In her paper, Fraustino wrote, “The CDC health communicator … and secondary campaign evaluation materials revealed that the campaign aimed to create buzz and awareness rather than behavioral change. Consistent with this goal, the campaign was found to facilitate a sense of community and support, be effective in garnering viewership, and be cost effective.”

Not only do campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness, but sometimes they can actually end up doing more harm than good.

But in her experiment, Fraustino found that people exposed to similarly humorous messages were less likely to get prepared than those who saw messages that weren’t funny. Fraustino believes that may be due to the very thing that made the campaign so popular: comedy. She believes that the zombie messaging actually led people to take disaster preparedness less seriously. Hence the “zombie dilemma”: The very humor that made the campaign popular may also have diluted its effectiveness.

When Awareness Campaigns Reach the Wrong Audience

The second risk that poorly devised awareness campaigns have is that they reach a different audience than the one that was intended. This might be an audience that is unsympathetic to the campaign’s goals or one that might already be convinced of its goals.

In the paper “The rise of seafood awareness campaigns in an era of collapsing fisheries,” Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University, and Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the Institute for the Ocean Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, examined the effectiveness of seafood awareness campaigns that used food labels to reduce consumers’ consumption of certain overfished seafood.4

Food labels that help buyers determine when they are making an environmentally conscious choice seem like a smart way to help consumers make better choices at the time they are purchasing the item. Unfortunately, in this instance, labeling certain fish as ecofriendly had little effect on most consumers. The labels did not diminish the demand for overfished seafood. In fact, the only people who were found to be influenced by the labels already belonged to environmental organizations.

What’s even more troubling is that eco-friendly labeling has produced an economic incentive for seafood companies and fishermen to deceive consumers by changing the names of their products and co-opting the eco-friendly label. “Sharks, considered undesirable in Ecuadorian city markets, are filleted, relabeled and sold instead as weak fishes or even tuna,” wrote the authors. “Using DNA testing, [researchers] found that three-quarters of the fish sold in the US as ‘Red snapper’ belong to a species other than Lutjanus campechanus, ‘the’ Red snapper (in the United States).” The researchers also found that more than 50 percent of environmental advertising on seafood products is misleading. In this instance, the awareness campaign reached consumers who were already likely to avoid overfished species, and it actually created an incentive for unethical fisheries to mislabel their products.

When Awareness Creates Harm

If the aim of a campaign is to encourage people to behave in new ways, it is important to take a look at behavioral science that can lend insight into how a particular audience might perceive a message, lest you do more harm than good. Take, for instance, the Dumb Ways to Die campaign in Australia.5

In November 2012, it seemed like the lyrics “Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die” were leaking out of the iPad of every teen. The song was created for the campaign by Victoria Rail to reduce the number of people who died by stepping in front of Metro trains out of Melbourne. The video and accompanying game are charming, with an indie-style earworm and characters that make macabre deaths adorable. The strangely cheerful and catchy song topped iTunes lists of most-downloaded songs in 28 countries, and the video has more than 144 million YouTube views. That’s impressive reach by any standard.

The campaign is also one of the most awarded in the history of advertising, receiving five Grands Prix at the 2013 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The strategy was to create an ad that was entertaining and didn’t repel people with a sad message as so many public service announcements do. In terms of awareness, the campaign knocked it out of the park. Advertising Age reported that the campaign earned more than $60 million in media impressions and that millions signed a pledge to be safer around trains. Metro said the campaign resulted in a 21 percent drop in deaths the following year.6

But there’s one coveted award the campaign didn’t earn: the one for creative effectiveness. The Cannes judges weren’t convinced that the campaign was responsible for the decline in rail accidents that followed the campaign’s launch. Those millions of views may not have translated to specific behavior change. In fact, only one of the campaign’s four stated objectives included any specific change in behavior, which was to “See a reduction of near misses and accidents at level crossings and station platforms over 12 months by 10 percent.”

One juror in the effectiveness category told Mumbrella Asia, “The numbers the case study put forward, including ‘extraordinary views on Facebook,’ didn’t really correlate with the period they were measuring against or have anything significant against people around that vicinity.”7

This campaign was explicitly focused on reducing the number of rail accidents by raising awareness of safety and getting people to be more careful around trains, but accidents account for only 25 percent of the deaths associated with heavy rail in Victoria. The Melbourne newspaper The Age reported that between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, there were 46 rail deaths in Victoria, the majority of which were suicides. A 2010 article in the journal Injury Prevention cites a rate of rail suicide in Victoria that was higher than the rate for the rest of the population in Australia, and The Age reported that from 2012 to 2014, more than one person was struck by a train every week.8 The TrackSAFE Foundation, an advocacy group focused on reducing rail-related deaths throughout the country, reports that there are 150 rail suicides in Australia each year, and nearly 1,000 attempts. In June 2014, The Age reported, “Suicide by train has become so common Metro plans to build a dedicated train wash, called a ‘biopit,’ to clean train exteriors after a person is hit.”

It is worth considering that the video’s charming figures and catchy hook may have actually made death seem more appealing or normal to those already at risk. Death in cartoon form is certainly temporary and painless. At a minimum, the campaign does little to address a context that included an already abnormally high suicide rate, much to the concern of public health and mental health officials in the country.

In fact, one Metro official’s comments about the campaign suggest that concerns about suicide weren’t among the risks that she and her team contemplated pre-launch: “Before the ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ concept was presented, there was a pre-sell phone call. ‘We’re doing a song,’ said our group account director. My response: ‘I’m hanging up.’ Fearing a tacky jingle, I was pleasantly surprised that this ‘song’ concept was exactly what we were looking for. Sure, it was different and had the words ‘dumb’ and ‘death’ in the headline, but it just worked, the warmth of the creative balanced out the negativity of the consequences,” Leah Waymark, general manager, corporate relations for Metro told Advertising Age a year after the campaign launched.

This is worrisome given that communications science scholars, public health officials, sociologists, and psychologists have reported on the influence that media can have in normalizing death, suicide, and violence as something common, cool, or even charming, but most important, not permanent. A much-cited paper by David Phillips in the American Sociological Review supports what scholars call the “Werther Effect”—that newspaper coverage of suicide is associated with higher suicide rates in their communities.9 Later work shows a clustering of suicides after television news coverage of suicide.

Unfortunately, it is uncommon for practitioners to conduct a review of academic literature as part of the early stages of any effort. Campaigns rooted in research are far more likely to conduct new research by testing their messages or surveying a target audience about their likelihood of acting. The gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.

When Awareness Leads to Backlash

Raising awareness also gets dicey when issues have the potential to generate controversy. When issues are complicated by partisan politics, for example, the message may be vulnerable to backlash and slow down or halt progress on an issue. This was the case in a public policy initiative in support of the HPV vaccine.

In 2006, the CDC recommended a national requirement that adolescent girls get vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. The recommendation, and the national lobbying campaign that followed, pushed for a state mandate that required the HPV vaccine for school enrollment. It followed US Food and Drug Administration approval earlier that year for Gardasil, an HPV vaccine. Gardasil, produced by Merck, was the first drug to hit the market, due to a concerted and highly public effort to fast-track the drug so that it could establish Merck’s dominance in the market.

A mandate that preteen girls be vaccinated against HPV became a political battleground because some social conservatives believed that the legislation was a gateway to sexual promiscuity. Prior to the controversy, 90 percent of children received the vaccine, but in the years that followed, only 33 percent of girls received it, and just 7 percent of boys did.

Research tells us that people believe information about vaccine risks and benefits that supports their cultural and political values. Political polarization increases as the news media report on the topic and advocates raise its profile. When this happens, people are exposed to cues that signal “sides” of the issue and that either resonate with their beliefs or threaten how they see themselves and the world. So it’s not surprising that a public campaign for a government-mandated vaccine to protect adolescent girls from a sexually transmitted disease would create cultural controversy. Government regulation, check. Reproductive rights, check. Children and sexuality, check and check.

Could this story have turned out differently? Yale University professor Dan Kahan, who researched the program, says yes. If there had not been a high-profile lobbying campaign to fast-track Gardasil, the vaccine would have slowly been introduced to boys and girls through their personal physicians and existing programs that provide access to childhood vaccinations, a more traditional path for introducing new vaccines, similar to the introduction of the hepatitis B vaccine (HBV).10 In the end, the HPV campaign probably did more harm than good by leading to a reduction in the number of children who received the vaccine.

Creating Awareness That Leads to Action

To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before. That is the approach that the communications consulting firm Spitfire Strategies takes when working with its clients.

In every consulting project that Spitfire works on, Spitfire President Kristen Grimm and her team work to get nonprofit leaders to identify concrete goals for their work. Grimm is convinced that by focusing on what you want changed, you can identify a call to action whether you are working to make teens stop texting and driving, helping people make healthier choices, or working on issues where solutions are less obvious, such as addressing implicit bias or income inequality.

Here at the University of Florida College of Journalism, we’re building an academic discipline called “public interest communications,” which we define as the development and implementation of science-based, planned strategic communication campaigns with the goal of achieving significant and sustained positive behavioral change or action on an issue that transcends the particular interests of any single organization.11

There are four essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign: target your audience as narrowly as possible; create compelling messages with clear calls to action; develop a theory of change; and use the right messenger. We will explore each of these four elements in the following sections.

Target Your Audience as Narrowly as Possible

One of the most important tasks in crafting a public interest communications campaign is to identify your target audience—the individuals or groups whose action or behavior change will be most important to helping you achieve your goal. One of the best examples of this approach is a case that didn’t begin as public interest communications but certainly had lasting implications for freedom of speech.

In 1932, Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House Publishing, acquired the rights to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in the United States, believing that the book would be as successful as it had been throughout Europe. But Cerf had a problem. The book was banned in the United States and would be seized as soon as it came off the printing press, which would lose Cerf millions of dollars. And because of the ban, there were several pirated versions of the books floating around that threatened the original text.

Cerf and his attorney, Morris Ernst, could have launched a campaign to raise Americans’ awareness of the literary significance of the book or the harms of censorship. They could also have printed the book in the face of the ban, which might have generated headlines. But that would have brought them no closer to getting the ban removed. They chose a different path.

To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action.

Ernst identified a US District Court judge in New York City, John Woolsey, who was known for his support of the First Amendment and who had struck down several rulings on obscenity. Then Cerf and Ernst hired a man to board the Aquitania ocean liner in Europe with a copy of Ulysses in his bag and disembark in New York City, where the book would be impounded by customs, and the smuggling case would make it to Woolsey’s courtroom. Cerf and Ernst knew that no additional documents would be considered in the case and that only what was contained between the book’s covers would be admissible as evidence. So they stuffed a copy of the book with every piece of literary critique they could find—including an essay by writer Ezra Pound—citing the book’s contribution to literature.

As expected, the man and his copy of Ulysses were detained at customs, and the case went to court in fall 1933. In his decision, United States v. One Book Named Ulysses, Woolsey wrote, “Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.” Cerf and Ernst won the case, and the book was on the press within 10 minutes of the ruling. Their sophisticated approach to the problem not only brought one of the world’s most important pieces of literature to the United States, but also resulted in what Ernst called “a bodyblow for the censors.”

Cerf continued to fight against censorship of important literature, and Ernst went on to become one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their story provides a critical lesson for social change: When you are clear about your goal and find the right strategy, your target audience may be as narrow as a single person.

Create Compelling Messages With Clear Calls to Action

It’s important to develop a comprehensive understanding not only of the audience you are trying to reach and what will resonate with them, but also of the complexity of the issue you are trying to affect and its context. It is particularly important to craft campaign messages, stories, and calls to action that do not threaten how an audience sees itself or its values. Research into how your target audience forms opinions and who influences them will also drive your communication strategy, directing you toward potential partnerships, messages, and stories.

For Cerf and Ernst, focusing on their audience meant identifying and swaying a single judge. It’s easy to look at that case as an outlier, but consider social issues that have a much larger audience. Take the “Let’s Move” campaign, launched by former first lady Michelle Obama.12 This highly strategic campaign is rooted in the deep body of research about the causes of childhood obesity and driven by the social science about how to communicate effectively on health issues. A campaign that could have focused solely on getting kids to eat less instead looked at research on the underlying causes of obesity.

The first lady started with policies that would ensure that kids got healthier meals at school. Rather than promoting the health dangers of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages, she focused on getting kids to drink more water. Rather than vilifying the food industry, Obama worked with industry to reduce fat, sodium, and sugar in foods such as breakfast cereal and macaroni and cheese. And she’s changing how people see what they eat, with new food labeling laws that will increase transparency and will start appearing in 2018. It appears that the campaign is working. Childhood obesity is no longer increasing, and among children between the ages of 2 and 5, it’s dropped by nearly half.

Compare that approach with the “Just Say No” campaign launched by former first lady Nancy Reagan.13 Just Say No was essentially an education program, as solid an example of a campaign rooted in the information deficit model as one could hope to find. Just Say No supported programs like DARE, which brought police officers into schools to educate kids about the dangers of drugs. Today the program is effective because it emphasizes helping kids role-play the kinds of conversations they might have when confronted with the opportunity to use drugs. But in its original version, which was more focused on generating fear of the consequences of using drugs, evaluations showed that kids who went through the program were actually more likely to use drugs and alcohol as they got older, not less. Fortunately, external evaluation made it possible to course-correct the program.

Part of the reason Let’s Move is working is because of the specific calls to action for each audience. Telling people what you want them to do is critical, but an effective call to action is not just a restatement of an overarching goal. Denver Water’s “Use Only What You Need” campaign did this brilliantly. The purpose of that campaign was to get residents to reduce their water use. Dozens of groups have tried and failed to get people to conserve water. But Denver Water’s call to action to “use only what you need” doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. It’s a positive way to urge people to avoid waste. And they backed their campaign up with precise calls to action, such as “Water two minutes less.”

In addition, the city of Denver created a context for success by replacing 10,000 public school toilets with more water-efficient ones and moving to tiered pricing to reward lower water use. After nine years, Denver residents’ water use dropped to a 40-year low, equaling what people were using in 1973 when the city had 350,000 fewer residents.14 While we were unable to find any external evaluation of the campaign, we can see why it might have worked: a clear and compelling call to action delivered in an appealing way to a carefully considered target audience.

Develop a Theory of Change

Identifying the right target audience and delivering a clear call to action that people will act on isn’t dark magic. It requires having a theory of change—a methodology or road map for how you will achieve change that includes objectives, tactics, and evaluation— and knowing the issue well enough to know where change will have its greatest effect.

Tying a communications strategy to a theory of change helps ensure that your communications efforts are tied to overarching goals, not simply focused on promotion or awareness. Building a strong theory of change requires the same elements that a solid, action-oriented communications plan does: a clear goal, a clear understanding of what will be different and what will cause it to change, and an understanding of what will influence people to act.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott provides just such an example. Most people know about Rosa Parks’s role in that story. But there was another woman behind the boycott whose understanding of strategy, message, and messengers was critical to the boycott’s effectiveness. Jo Ann Robinson was a faculty member at Alabama State College in Montgomery. Just before Christmas in 1945, Robinson boarded a Montgomery, Ala., city bus to head to the airport to visit family up north for the holidays. The bus was nearly empty, and Robinson chose one of the seats toward the middle of the bus—seats that were designated for white riders if the bus was full, but that blacks could use when the bus was empty. As she sat, the driver came toward her with his arm raised. Humiliated, Robinson ran from the bus.

Robinson never forgot the pain of that day. When she became president of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Caucus, she wrote a letter to the mayor, urging him to address three specific issues faced by black riders. “Mayor Gayle,” Robinson wrote, “Three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate. More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers.”

Identifying the right target audience and delivering a clear call to action that people will act on isn’t dark magic. It requires having a theory of change.

Robinson’s letter went unanswered, and so she waited for the right moment for the threatened boycott. It seemed as though the moment arrived in spring 1955 when 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat, but Colvin swore at the police as she was arrested, and Robinson feared that the community would not rally around her. Later that year, another young woman was arrested for the same offense, and still Robinson waited. But on Thursday, December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks quietly declined to give up her seat, Robinson knew the moment had come. Parks was highly regarded in Montgomery, and her long history in the civil rights movement had won her both credibility and affection.

Identifying the right target audience and delivering a clear call to action that people will act on isn’t dark magic. It requires having a theory of change.

As soon as Robinson heard that Parks had been arrested, she went to her office and typed up a flyer calling on blacks to boycott the city’s buses. Robinson and her students made 50,000 copies of the flyer and stayed up most of the night cutting and bundling them. The next morning, she and her students got the bundles into the hands of influential and well-connected blacks throughout the city. On Saturday, Martin Luther King Jr., released his own flyer. The boycott on the following Monday was so successful that civil rights leaders voted to continue the boycott until a US Supreme Court case on the topic was decided. The boycott lasted 381 days, starting the day of Parks’s court hearing and ending the day that the Supreme Court decided in favor of ending segregation on public transportation.

Robinson had a theory of change: She knew that a boycott would provide critical pressure because blacks made up 75 percent of bus riders, and that if she could get all of them to participate, the company would have to accede to their requests or suffer huge financial losses. She also understood that the boycott had to have the right emotional impetus—one that would be powerful enough to sustain the protests for months. Because Parks was known and beloved, Robinson knew that her arrest for failing to give up her seat would inspire others to boycott in a way that Colvin’s would not. It was a theory of change that worked.

Use the Right Messenger

Robinson intuited something else that research would bear out decades later. Successful public interest campaigns need a narrowly defined audience, clear calls to action, and a theory of change. But they also need one more thing—the right messenger. Robinson knew that the community would support Parks in a way that they would not support Colvin. In order to inspire and persuade people to adopt a new behavior or a new way of thinking, having the message come from people who have authority and credibility in your audience’s world matters.

Who is influential in a community is tied to whom people trust for information. And whom people trust is very much connected to how people see themselves, their values, and their identities. Social psychology tells us that if a call to action asks someone to do, believe, or represent something that runs counter to how they see themselves, or poses a risk for maintaining that vision of themselves, then they are not going to even entertain the idea.

David Sleeth-Keppler, a social psychologist at Humboldt State University, and his colleagues at ecoAmerica conducted a study to examine whom people turn to for information on climate change.15 They found that participants who were more skeptical of climate change or who had little trust in official messengers, such as scientists or politicians, turned instead to informal communicators for information about climate change. Skeptics placed their trust in religious leaders, coworkers, family, friends, and neighbors for information and solutions for climate change.

Chasing Ice, the Academy Award-winning climate change documentary that is dressed up as an action-adventure film, understood this and utilized community influencers to reach skeptical audiences. Following the release of the film, director and producer Jeff Orlowski and his team at Exposure Labs worked with a team of strategists to launch the Chasing Ice Ohio tour, a social impact campaign, in spring 2014.

The campaign sought to shift the political conversation in two ways: First, it encouraged audience members to use their voice through social media to influence friends, family, and community. Second, the campaign sought to foster a national social media campaign targeted at the Ohio congressional district of Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, who openly denied climate change, with the goal that he would change his position on the issue (which he eventually did).

From the beginning, the team targeted a particular segment of Ohio residents: constituents from Tiberi’s district, faith leaders, the agricultural community, recreational sports enthusiasts, and politicians. They understood that they would need to partner with community influencers to reach audiences that would otherwise not see the film and participate in the campaign. They held 90 screenings and Q&A sessions across Ohio with Orlowski and the Chasing Ice team. These sessions sought to connect the dots between climate change worldwide and the impact of these changes on Ohio communities.

A report on the film’s impact notes, “Faith-based groups such as the Evangelical Environmental network, Catholic Climate Covenant, and Interfaith Power and Light were extremely important strategic partnerships due to their large number of conservative members.16 Cultivating these partnerships meant getting the film to members of the district who might not normally have been open to a film on climate change. By working with these faithbased groups, the team members were able to collaborate with local religious leaders who already had established language to reach out to congregations in order to share the film and the local call to action. One screening movingly resulted in a pastor leading a prayer for Tiberi to acknowledge the science of climate change.” By working with influencers in these traditionally skeptical communities, the campaign was able to reach a new audience and saw success in shifting climate beliefs.

Put Accelerant on the Fire of Change

Effective and strategic communication is fundamental to any effective campaign. It’s a bit like gasoline poured on a flame. The fire flares, and you can no longer separate the flame from its fuel. But the flame becomes large enough to spread. If your idea, your goal, or your plan is a flame, effective and strategic communication will make that idea spread.

How lucky the world is that Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the suffragettes recognized the role that strategic communications plays in driving change. And how lucky we are to be alive in a moment when we can bring together the best of what we know from academic research and behavioral science, along with an extensive history of practice to craft campaigns that move beyond simply raising awareness of an issue to getting people and organizations to drive lasting change and build a better world.

Online course “Communications for Advocacy” in 6 languages

Sogicampaigns and the PITCH program (Aidsfonds/Frontline Aids/Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) are launching a free 10-lesson online course on Communications for Advocacy. 

This course s based on insights of hundreds of campaigners worldwide and aims to help activists and advocates to truly engage, rally and influence people to their advocacy cause. 

The course contains many examples of successful campaigns, many exciting and inspiring videos, interactive exercises, quizzes, and concludes with a 10-step plan to build your communications for advocacy strategy.


We encourage all creative campaigners to check it out: If you think your communication can be improved, it will give you many ideas and examples and will guide you in becoming more strategic about your communication. If you think your communication is already ahead of the curve, this course will help you test your assumptions, and maybe challenge you on some aspects.

Access the online course in EnglishRussianPortugueseBahasa IndonesiaVietnameseBurmese



How to do an Audience Analysis

This article was curated from COMPASS

An audience analysis is a process used to identify and understand the priority and influencing audiences for a SBCC strategy. The priority and influencing audiences are those people whose behavior must change in order to improve the health situation. A complete audience analysis looks at: 

  • Socio-demographic characteristics such as sex, age, language and religion.
  • Geographic characteristics like where the audience lives and how that might impact behavior.
  • Psychographic characteristics such as needs, hopes, concerns and aspirations.
  • Audience thoughts, beliefs, knowledge and current actions related to the health or social issue. 
  • Barriers and facilitators that prevent or encourage audience members to adopt the desired behavior change.
  • Gender and how it impacts audience members’ behavior and ability to change.
  • Effective communication channels for reaching the audience.
Why Conduct an Audience Analysis? 

An audience analysis informs the design of materials, messages, media selection and activities of a SBCC strategy. It establishes a clear, detailed and realistic picture of the audience. As a result, messages and activities are more likely to resonate with the audience and lead to the desired change in behaviors.

Who Should Conduct an Audience Analysis? 

A small, focused team should conduct the audience analysis. Members should include communication staff, health/social service staff and, when available, research staff.

Stakeholders should also be involved throughout the process. Consider effective ways to engage stakeholders to gain feedback and input, including: in-depth interviewsfocus group discussions, community dialogue, small group meetings, taskforce engagement and participatory stakeholder workshops

When Should Audience Analysis Be Conducted?

An audience analysis should be conducted at the beginning of a program or project, in conjunction with a situation analysis and program analysis. The team should start thinking about the audience during the desk review and fill in any gaps during the stakeholder workshop. It is part of the Inquiry phase of the P Process. 

Estimated Time Needed

Completing an audience analysis can take up to three to four weeks. When estimating time, consider the existing audience-related data, what gaps need to be filled and whether additional stakeholder or audience input is needed. Allow for additional time if formative research is needed to fill in any gaps that may exist in the literature.

Learning Objectives

After completing the activities in the audience analysis guide, the team will: 

  • Determine the priority audience. 
  • Determine the influencing audience(s). 
  • Describe the priority and influencing audience(s).
  • Develop an audience profile for each priority and influencing audience(s).



Step 1: Identify Potential Audience(s)

To address the problem statement and achieve the vision decided upon during the situation analysis, brainstorm and list all potential audiences that are affected by or have control over the health or social problem. For example, if the problem is high unmet need for family planning, potential audiences may be:

Step 2: Select the Priority Audience

An effective SBCC strategy must focus on the most important audience. The priority audience is not always the most affected audience, but is the group of people whose behavior must change in order to improve the health situation. The number of priority audiences depends mainly on the number of audiences whose practice of the behavior will significantly impact the problem. For example, priority audiences may be:

To identify the priority audience(s), keep in mind the vision and health or social problem. Then consider:

  • Who is most affected
  • How many people are in the audience
  • How important it is that the audience change their behavior
  • How likely it is that the audience will change their behavior
  • Who controls the behavior or the resources required for a behavior change

Step 3: Identify Priority Audience Characteristics

Identify the socio-demographic, geographic and psychographic characteristics of each priority audience. Include their communication preferences and other opportunities to reach them. 

Organize priority audience information in a table (see Audience Characteristics and Behavioral Factors Template under templates).

Step 4: Identify Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices

Understand what the priority audience knows, thinks, feels and does about the problem in order to determine the audiences’ stage of behavior change. This allows the program to tailor messages and activities based on the audience’s knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.

There are a number of ideational factors that commonly influence individual behavior and should be considered when examining the audience’s knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

The situation analysis, stakeholder workshop and any additional quantitative or qualitative research will indicate what the priority audience currently does in reference to the problem and what the audience knows, thinks and feels about the problem or desired behavior. Keeping in mind the ideational factors, examine that research to understand each priority audience. Ask questions such as:

  • What does the priority audience already know (knowledge) about the problem?
  • How does the priority audience feel about the problem (attitude)?
  • How does the priority audience see their role with respect to the problem (self-image)?
  • Does the priority audience feel at risk of having the problem? How at risk do they feel (risk perception)?
  • What are the community’s beliefs and attitudes toward the health problem (social norms)?
  • How capable does the priority audience feel about being able to take action to address the problem (self-efficacy)?
  • What emotional reaction does the priority audience have towards the health problem (emotions)?
  • What level of support does the priority audience believe they would receive from family members or the community (social support and influence)?
  • How capable does the priority audience feel about discussing how to reduce the problem (personal advocacy)? 

Add this information to the table (see Audience Characteristics and Behavioral Factors Template under templates).

Step 5: Identify Barriers and Facilitators

It is crucial to know what prevents or encourages the priority audience to practice the desired behavior. Identify barriers and facilitators of change in the literature and list them in the table (see Audience Characteristics and Behavioral Factors Template under templates).If the desk review does not adequately identify behavioral factors, conduct additional qualitative research (interviews, focus groups) with members of the priority audience. Some important barriers to consider include:

  • Habit: People are comfortable doing things the same way they have always done them.
  • Fear: People expect change to bring negative consequences.
  • Negative experience: Some audiences may have had a bad experience, such as with the health care system, and thus may be cynical or resistant to change.

If the desired behavior requires adopting/utilizing products or services, consider issues of availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability.


Step 6: Consider Audience Segmentation

Audience segmentation is the process of dividing the priority audience into sub groups according to at least one similar characteristic that will affect the success of the SBCC effort.  Look at the selected priority audience and decide if it is similar enough that it can be effectively reached by the same set of channelsmessages and interventions. Ask the following questions about the priority audience to decide if segmentation is necessary:

  • Are any audience members particularly difficult to reach, requiring a different set of channels?
  • Do any audience members have distinct views or concerns about the problem?
  • Do any audience members require a different message to reach them effectively?
  • Are any audience members at greater risk? 

If yes, the audience may need to be segmented further.  See the audience segmentation guide for more information on how to identify and prioritize audiences so that messages and interventions can be most effectively targeted.  

Some urban women of reproductive age may have different concerns or views about family planning. One group might be afraid of side effects while another group does not use family planning because they do not know where family planning services are available. These groups would require different messages and interventions and should be segmented if resources allow.

Step 7: Identify Key Influencers

Based on the priority or segmented audience, identify the key influencers. Search the situation analysisstakeholder workshop and any qualitative research findings for indications of who strongly influences the priority audience’s behavior (see Audience Focused Literature Review Chart Template under templates). Influencers can be individuals or groups. Their different roles – as friends, family, leaders, teachers, health providers and of course, the media – often determine their level of influence. Consider the following factors to help identify influencing audiences:

  • Who has the most impact on the priority audience’s health-related behavior and what is their relationship to the priority audience?
  • Who makes or shapes the priority audience’s decisions in the problem area?
  • Who influences the priority audience’s behavior positively and who influences it negatively?

Step 8: Organize Influencing Audience Information

For each influencing audience identified, search the literature to identify information about them and their relationship to the priority audience. Look for:

  • How strongly the group influences the priority audience
  • What behaviors they encourage the priority audience to practice
  • Why they would encourage or discourage the desired behavior
  • How to reach them

Organize information on influencing audiences in another table for later use in the SBCC strategy (see Influencing Audiences Template under templates):

Step 9: Develop Audience Profiles

Review the notes about each audience and try to tell the story of that person. Audience profiles bring audience segments to life by telling the story of an imagined individual from the audience.

The audience profile consists of a paragraph with details on current behaviors, motivation, emotions, values and attitudes, as well as information such as age, income level, religion, sex and where they live. The profile should reflect the primary barriers the audience faces in adopting the desired behavior. Include a name and photo to help the creative team visualize who the person is. Answers to the following questions can lead to insightful profiles that help the team understand and reach audiences more effectively: 

The audience profiles will feed directly into the creative brief process and will be an integral part of the SBCC strategy. See the Samples section for an example of an audience profile.


Audience Characteristics and Behavioral Factors Template

Audience-Focused Literature Review Template

Influencing Audience Template


Sample Audience Profile

Tips & Recommendations

  • Talk to audience members. Do not rely solely on the project team’s beliefs or what program staff and health workers say or assume about the audiences.
  • Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. To truly understand what audiences know, think and feel, set aside assumptions and preconceived notions. 
  • Work in teams. The collaboration among team members (four or five people recommended) will provide richer and deeper insights into the issues. If possible, include people who have direct experience working or living in the community. 
  • Find other ways to gather information. It is important to recognize that some documents may have information gaps that will require additional inquiries (formative research) to fully understand the potential audience. Interviews with local experts (e.g. medical and public health staff) can help explain the issue and identify those most at risk or affected by it.
  • Incorporate the communication channels prioritized during the stakeholder workshop. Also consider other opportunities to reach audiences, such as places (e.g., schools, clinics) and events (e.g., health fairs, community events). SBCC strategies can take advantage of such opportunities to connect with audience members about the topic.
  • The priority audience’s perception about how the community views an issue may differ from how the community actually views the issue. The perception of what the family/community thinks often will be the deciding factor when it comes to taking a health action. This can prevent the individual from taking the best action. Addressing the misperceptions with your program or campaign could lead to a more successful behavior change intervention than one that does not address misperceptions.
  • Audience profiles should represent the experience of real people. This will help the program team better understand the audiences they are trying to reach and ensure that audience members see themselves in the messages developed for them.
  • No two audience profiles should look the same; the best profiles use qualitative research as a source. Profiles are living documents that should be updated when new information becomes available. 

Lessons Learned

  • Designing messages and activities with shared characteristics in mind increases the likelihood of audience members identifying with the issue and feeling able to address it.

Glossary & Concepts

  • Priority audience refers to a group of people whose behavior must change in order to improve the health situation. It is the most important group to address because they have the power to make changes the SBCC campaign calls for. Sometimes this is also referred to as the intended audience.
  • An influencing audience is made up of those people who have the most significant and direct influence (positive or negative) over the priority audience. The influencing audience can exist at different levels: at the family level, community level (e.g. peers, relatives, teachers, community or faith-based leaders) or national or regional level (e.g. policy makers, media personnel, government leaders). 
  • Demographic information is statistical data (e.g. age, sex, education level, income level, geographic location) relating to a population and specific sub-groups of that population.
  • Psychographics are the attributes that describe personality, attitudes, beliefs, values, emotions and opinions. Psychographic characteristics or factors relate to the psychology or behavior of the audience.
  • Ideation refers to how new ways of thinking (or new behaviors) are diffused through a community by means of communication and social interaction among individuals and groups. Behavior is influenced by multiple social and psychological factors, as well as skills and environmental conditions that facilitate behavior. 
  • Ideational factors are grouped into three categories: cognitive, emotional and social. Cognitive factors address an individual’s beliefs, values and attitudes (such as risk perceptions), as well as how an individual perceives what others think should be done (subjective norms), what the individual thinks others are actually doing (social norms) and how the individual thinks about him/herself (self-image). Emotional factors include how an individual feels about the new behavior (positive or negative) as well as how confident a person feels that they can perform the behavior (self-efficacy). Social factors consist of interpersonal interactions (such as support or pressure from friends) that convince someone to behave in a certain way, as well as the effect on an individual’s behavior from trying to persuade others to adopt the behavior as well (personal advocacy).
  • Gender refers to the socially and culturally constructed roles and responsibilities deemed appropriate for men and women. Such constructions influence how males and females behave. In many cases, the way a community defines gender roles and expectations disadvantages women and girls. For example, if community norms dictate that boys should eat meat and vegetables while girls get rice and porridge, mothers will have difficulty ensuring that girls get enough of the right foods to be healthy.
  • Barriers to change prevent or make it difficult to adopt a behavior. Barriers come in many forms – emotional, societal, structural, educational, familial, etc. 
  • Facilitators of change make it easier to adopt a behavior. As with barriers, they can take many forms. 

Resources and References


A Field Guide to Designing a Health Communication Strategy

Conducting a Social Marketing Campaign

Leadership in Strategic Communication: Making a Difference in Infectious Disease and Reproductive Health


The Transtheoretical Model

Theories of Behavior Change



Article first published on IPS journal

The globalisation of anti-gender campaigns

Transnational anti-gender movements in Europe and Latin America create unlikely alliances


Hundreds of people take part during a demonstration in front of the Paraguayan Congress in Asuncion to claim a public education system based on traditional family values.

In 2012 and 2013, thousands of people demonstrated against same-sex marriage in Paris and other French cities. The success of these protests came as a surprise in a country often associated with secularism and sexual freedom.

The organisation La Manif pour Tous led some of the demonstrations, taking to the streets with pink and blue flags. It urged activists abroad to emulate the French with slogans, posters and strategies travelling across borders. While similar mobilisations happened earlier in Spain, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, 2012 appears to have been a turning point.

Spectacular mobilisations have also taken place in Latin America, which is both a key target and a production hub of anti-gender campaigns. A first flare was registered in 2011 in Paraguay, when the term ‘gender’ was contested by the Catholic right during discussions on the national education plan. In 2013, in one of his weekly TV programmes, Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Corrêa similarly denounced ‘gender ideology’ as an instrument aimed at destroying the family. Since 2014, these attacks have intensified, with massive demonstrations in numerous countries, and they decisively impacted the Colombian peace agreement referendum in 2016.

It culminated in November 2017, when American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was viciously attacked in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Although the attack received global attention, it is only the tip of the iceberg in Latin America.

Transnational campaigns

In both regions, these movements contest what they call gender ideology. Sometimes referred to as gender theory or genderism, it is presented as the matrix of the combatted policy reforms, and should therefore not be confused with gender studies or specific equality policies. No less importantly, gender ideology is seen by some as the cover for a totalitarian plan by radical feminists, LGBTQI activists and gender scholars to seize political power.

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies.

Crucially, this discourse recaptures and reframes Cold War Catholic discourses against Marxism and stirs anti-communist sentiments in Eastern Europe as well as in Latin America. There, the ‘evils of gender’ are entangled by right-wing activists with the ‘spectres of Venezuela’ or calls for a military intervention. Although national triggers vary (abortion and reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, LGBTI parental rights, gender mainstreaming, gender violence, sex education, anti-discrimination policies and so on), the explanation given by anti-gender campaigners is always the same: all this is due to gender ideology.

These movements not only share a common enemy, they display similar discourses and strategies as well as a distinctive style of action. We label them transnational anti-gender campaigns to emphasise their global scope and underline their particular profile in the wider landscape of opposition to feminism and LGBTI rights.

A Catholic cradle

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies. Building on previous projects such as Pope John-Paul II’s Theology of the Body lectures or the New Evangelization, it was designed in response to the 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the term ‘gender’ entered the United Nations vocabulary, surrounded by demands for rights relating to reproduction and sexuality.

This discourse, which relies on ideas espoused by Cardinal Ratzinger in the early 1980s, was developed in Europe and Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to the Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions (2003) and the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and World (2004).

Gender ideology is not only a lens through which to analyse what happened at the UN, but also a Catholic strategy of action. Based on philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, it propagates its alternative interpretation of gender through means that subvert the notions it opposes. While John-Paul II and Benedict XVI designed this project, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his support, describing gender as a form of  ‘ideological colonisation’.

Campaigns on the ground

Contemporary mobilisations, however, cannot be reduced to a Catholic enterprise, but intersect with other political projects and wider sets of actors. First, present strategies are reminiscent of the US Christian Right, and US organisations are active across continents, propelling transnational networks such as the World Congress of Families.

Since evangelical voices, which are new in Latin America, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked.

Second, while the Vatican has been instrumental in elaborating a frame of action, actors on the ground are more diverse. They include other religious groups as well as secular voices, and form coalitions that vary considerably according to local contexts.

The European situation cannot not be understood without looking at intersections with right-wing populisms. Both rely on attacks against corrupt elites and pretend to defend ‘innocent children’. They invoke common sense against decadent ideas and claim that things have ‘gone too far’, depicting themselves as the defenders of a majority silenced by powerful lobbies. These encounters explain why, in several European countries, right-wing populists have joined anti-gender campaigns without being particularly religious. This overlap offers a springboard to anti-genderists while fuelling anti-liberal discourses and sentiments.

Campaigns in Russia and the parts of Europe under Russian influence have been directly engineered from the Kremlin with the support of the Russian Orthodox church. As part of the state machinery, they are instrumentalised to restore the international status of Russia through a global defence of national sovereignty and ‘traditional values’. Poland and Hungary are currently following this path, with Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, increasingly vocal on the issue.

Latin America campaigns displays distinctive features. First, more than anywhere else, the criticism of gender ideology is no monopoly of the right, even though right-wingers are usually on the front lines. Second, these campaigns involve both conservative Catholics and evangelicals (mostly neo-Pentecostals). Since evangelical voices, which are new in the region, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked. However, Latin American Catholics have significantly contributed to the development of the anti-gender discourse and current anti-gender formations rely on older Catholic anti-abortion structures.

Third, anti-gender political formations are not exclusively religious but encompass secular actors whose profile differs substantially across countries. In Brazil, they include politicians playing electoral games, extreme-right actors, centre-liberals articulating anti-state arguments alongside anti-gender arguments, middle-class activists longing for social order and transnationally connected Jewish right-wing activists.

Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together.

Despite this unexpected diversity, however, the populist analytical frame, so common in Europe and the US, is inappropriate. Indeed, populist practices have long been deeply ingrained in the regional political culture. As a result, populism has no side and cannot be easily mapped on to the left-right divide in the region.

A complex constellation

Anti-gender movements include a complex constellation of actors that goes far beyond specific religious affiliations. Research has shown that ‘gender ideology’ is an empty signifier, which can tap into different fears and anxieties in specific contexts and therefore be shaped to fit distinct political projects. Furthermore, as stressed by Andrea Peto, Eszter Kováts, Maari Põim and Weronika Grzebalska, the vague notion of gender ideology operates as a ‘symbolic glue’ that facilitates cooperation between actors despite their divergences.

This is precisely what must be understood: what are the specific constellations of actors in each context and how can different sorts of actors, who usually do not work together and can even compete with each other, find a common ground on which to collaborate?

In brief, how to explain joint ventures between believers and atheists, Catholic and Russian Orthodox or Latin American evangelical, or opposed strands within contemporary Roman Catholicism? It must also be reiterated that the debate is not about faith against atheism, and that not all believers of a specific denomination are involved in these campaigns.

A more sophisticated analytical frame would allow us to move away from simplistic grids such as populism, the global right or a global backlash, and pay more attention to the specific political formations at play on the ground. It would also avoid narrow binary frames opposing ‘us’ to ‘them’ that unduly homogenise distinctive contextual conditions and a complex array of forces and actors.

Finally, contextualisation and complexification are not only needed analytically, but are politically essential. Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together. Today, it is crucial to further understand how these mysterious coalitions are forged and sustained.

Campaigns shouldn’t be easy!

Campaigns shouldn’t be easy! Why difficulty and motivation matter so much in campaign design

Thoughts on Dan Ariely’s book “Payoff”

“Knowing what drives us and others is an essential step toward enhancing the inherent joy, and minimizing the confusion, in our lives” – Dan Ariely

The work of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely focusses on the distinction between the concepts of ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’. His work illustrates that the things in life that might give us a sense of ‘meaning’ don’t necessarily give us a sense of ‘happiness’. And yet, for so many of us, the pursuit of ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’ is our motivation. Similarly, any successful campaign should be seeking to find the ‘bliss point’ that allies these two motivations.

The key drivers to human motivation are

  • Our sense of identity;
  • The need for recognition;
  • A sense of accomplishment;
  • A feeling of creation; and
  • Most importantly, a connection to others.

For Ariely, a sense of ownership greatly influences our motivation. As most of us would intuitively recognize, the more that a person feels a sense of ownership over something, a cause, the more likely they are to be motivated to achieve it. When considered in the context of campaigning, the consequences of a sense of ownership over an issue is compelling. It suggests that in order for people to be feel motivated to influence change, those who are targeted by the given campaign should be the owners of that change. This means that traditional approaches to campaign design, those that have long told us that it is important to tell people they need to change and then show them the ‘right’ model of change, might not be the most effective strategies to evoke change. So, how do we get people to feel a sense of ownership over change?


According to Ariely, campaigns should not be easy. Instead, the effort that is required for a campaign actually inspires a sense of ownership in the participants. Meaning that this effort required to cause change also, at the same time, is the very reward that people are seeking. For example, the hugely successful Ice Bucket Challenge is a good illustration of this. The Challenge asked people to set up a fundraising circle, film themselves pouring ice cold waters over themselves, and then distribute the video to their networks. Beyond the innovative and hilarious nature of the action, its sheer difficulty , when compare to changing an avatar or posting yet another selfie, for example, might have been a major driver of the campaign’s success.


So, going against traditional campaign wisdom, he argues that successful campaigns should not be easy. Instead, campaigners need to reflect on having the right balance of difficulty in a campaign, where the action stays difficult enough to be meaningful, but easy enough that people do not feel put off from participating.

In addition to this, the change at the center of the campaign needs to be meaningful so that people are prepared to engage in the ‘difficult’ asks that the campaign makes. To be meaningful, the change should be clear and long term. Nobody wants to invest in a change that will not be sustained. For example, no one wants to quit smoking for just one month. And so campaigns should not shy away from engaging people with a long term process of change, one what has multiple and complex effects. Ultimately, easy and short term asks will not result in change that is meaningful enough for people to engage or invest in supporting that change.

long term

Another key piece of advice that Ariely’s book offers is that campaigns must acknowledge and be thankful for the effort required to participate in them. If campaigns request something that is difficult, they then need to be prepared to guide and support people through the journey, and regularly show gratitude for the road participants have travelled. Last, but not least, is the issue of ‘creation bias’ which refers to the fact that people only feel ownership over things they feel they created themselves. Successful campaigns need to target people in a way that allows for them to creatively participate. Simply liking and sharing campaign content will not be enough.


To summarize, a successful campaign requires three key actions:

1. Making participation difficult and meaningful enough for people to value the change;

2. Allowing people to participate creatively in the change journey; and

3. Acknowledging participants’ effort!


Break the law!

The article below, reproduce from Wagingnonviolence.org opens interesting discussions on how to use legal breach for campaigning purposes.

Applied to LGBTI, this tactics of explicitly and visibly transgressing the law you want to see abolished has been used quite extensively in times and places where anti-LGBTI laws were still on the books but not enforced.  This is somewhat different to strategic litigation cases,where you challenge a law in a legal battle, but can be combined.

This issue is certainly worth opening a chapter on.


About 100 Danes, young and old, stood outside Copenhagen City Court in the chilly seaside winds last Tuesday to show their solidarity with four activists alleged to have illegally assisted refugees in their trek across the waters from Denmark to Sweden.

While only two of the accused are Danish citizens, all are members of MedMenneskeSmuglerne, or “Those who smuggle thy neighbor” — an outgrowth of the more broad-based initiative Welcome to Denmark, which welcomes migrants and refugees into the country.

Last year, over one million migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other unstable nations endured the risks of exodus to Denmark and other parts of Europe. Many died during the journey or ended up in refugee camps for prolonged periods. This migration wave correlates directly to the growing xenophobia and shift to the right in many European countries, including Denmark.

“Pretty much all leftist organizations in Europe neglected to consider the refugee influx on their agendas,” said Mimoza Murati, one of the non-Danish activists facing criminal charges that day. “We should have been prepared because we know the political landscape.”

While Danish prosecutors may not have agreed, their case was ultimately dismissed for lack of substantial evidence. The four members of MedMenneskeSmuglerne were met with victorious applause by their Welcome to Denmark cohorts outside the court building.

Providing hospitality for asylum seekers

When Trine Simmel, a young Danish activist from Aarhus, saw the masses of migrants on television pouring across the German border into Denmark’s Jylland peninsula around September 2015, she connected with her friends to figure out what they could do to provide basic needs to the newcomers.

The migrants were being escorted by policemen into Jylland, so the youth initially planned to wait at an overpass, where they could drop care packages full of warm clothes, hygiene products and other essentials. The migrants, however, had become suspicious of being escorted by state authorities and dispersed themselves into the forests, which made tracking them much more difficult.

“The young people residing in Jylland called their parents to convene four or five cars, so shoes and related items could be distributed,” Simmel explained. “When drivers would come across migrants, they would offer the care package and ask them where they wanted to go within Denmark.”

A good number of the refugees decided to go to Copenhagen, just across the sea from Sweden, where some already had family members.

Danish activists stage a scene depicting a dead boat of refugees next to The Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen. (Twitter / @FlygtningeInfo)

“Many apolitical people stepped up to help drive those walking on the railways,” Simmel said. “Many of these people had family backgrounds as immigrants and felt empathetic, but were not usually active in political issues.” An informal hospitality network known as Venligboerne, which includes over 150,000 members across Denmark, helped facilitate the volunteer effort.

Activists like Simmel felt this crisis presented an opportunity to get away from the typical activist duties of meetings and demonstration, and provide a direct service. The influx of refugees tugged at their consciences.

“Just like my grandfather, I had to decide which side of history I wanted to be on,” Simmel said. “Politicians demonized us for posting pictures on Facebook of immigrants being helped, but even [Danes] during World War II were demonized and in violation of the law [for helping Jews].”

Reviving a tradition of refugee smuggling

Denmark was the only country in Europe to reduce the size of its armed forces at the beginning of WWII, yet it was undoubtedly among the most effective in resisting German occupation.

Shortly after an overnight invasion of Denmark on April 9, 1940, 17-year-old Slagelse schoolboy Arne Sejr became frustrated at Danish passivity toward foreign rule. He returned home from school and used his typewriter to print 25 copies of his“Ten Commandments for Danes.” The last of these commandments read, “You shall protect anyone chased by the Germans.”

Danish youth discretely produced fliers of this kind over the course of the German occupation. Groups like the Danish Youth Association under the guidance of theology professor Hal Koch and the Churchill Club in Alborg sabotaged German authorities on a regular basis, sometimes destroying vehicles carrying weapons and munitions.

Christian communities circulated messages against the German occupation through their homilies. This led to the murder of Kaj Munk, who was among the most outspoken clerics advocating for Danish self-rule.

Jewish refugees were ferried out of Denmark aboard Danish fishing boats bound for Sweden. (US Holocaust Museum Memorial / Frihedsmuseet)

Among all of the tactics employed, the WWII-era Danes are perhaps most remembered for their effective smuggling of refugee Jews across the border into Sweden. During the course of a few months in 1943, 7,220 Jews — almost the entire Jewish population in Denmark — managed to escape to Sweden with the help of their Danish comrades. Only 472 were captured in early October during raids by the Nazis.

“Early on, we used this history of direct service to refugees as our inspiration,” said Welcome to Denmark organizer Søren Warburg.

Providing a warm bed, an underground route to Sweden, warm clothes and a key to one’s house: These are tactics literally cut from WWII memory and pasted upon today’s context of migration in Europe. Even while Denmark’s present government has intentionally made itself unattractive to asylum seekers, Danes themselves — strengthened by a history of unions and community organizing — are providing the services their elected representatives in the welfare state are refusing to provide.

Reflecting on the history of Danish aid to Jewish refugees, Welcome to Denmark spokesperson Line Søgaard said, “We had a sense that something historical was happening again.” According to her, 500 Danes initially responded to the call to action and formed working groups, focusing both on a political campaign and direct services.

Sailing in solidarity

Since Copenhagen is situated about 20 miles across the Öresund Strait from Malmö, Sweden, members of the sailing community who wanted to help refugees find family members or friends in Sweden decided to take action. In October of 2015, they gathered a list of nearly 20 names of allied boat owners and organized the transport of migrants as a public act of defiance.

“At the beginning, we did not think anyone was going to get prosecuted,” Søgaard said. “There are real human traffickers they could go after, but instead leaders are saying that we are the ones betraying the nation.”

Getting in a boat again is no easy task for refugees who have survived the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. “Many of the migrants we helped to reach Sweden would send us audio messages once they were relieved to have reached their family members,” Søgaard said. “There was this sense that we were continuing the [WWII] legacy of assisting refugees, which some of our family members had started. We had stuck to our sense of morals and ethics even when the [anti-smuggling] law is wrong.”

Crossing by sea, however, wasn’t the only way to reach Sweden. Calle Vangstrup, one of the other four activists who faced criminal charges, worked with his movement members to provide around-the-clock assistance at Rødby, Padborg and Central stations — three major meeting points where migrants who are usually not conversant in Danish or able to understand the transportation system could depart for Sweden by train.

“There were groups of people who were willing to help within the law and those willing to break the law [prohibiting transportation assistance across the border],” Vangstrup said. “Thankfully, the Swedes are more receptive these days, unlike during WWII when they would often send the smuggled Jews back and put them at risk again.”

Vangstrup believes members of Danish Nazi groups and the populist Danish Peoples’ Party were the ones who saw MedMenneskeSmuglerne on the news and reported them to the police.

“As a socialist and as a human being, I feel I should not enjoy so many rights when the refugees have none,” Vangstrup said.

Welcome to Denmark activists march in Aarhus on October 7. (Facebook / Welcome to Denmark)

Although the police carried out investigations leading to the charges against Vangstrup and his fellow activists last spring, police have not always perpetuated the xenophobia that characterizes the growing right-wing political ideology of Denmark.

During WWII, thousands of police officers were arrested by German authorities. Danish cops had developed a reputation for being unreliable, often deliberately overlooking the acts of sabotage committed by Danish youth against the occupiers.

This kind of humanity among the police resurfaced during the recent migrant influx in Denmark. “Many people were asking police what they could do to help the refugees,” Søgaard said. “The police did not even know how to advise people, so some looked the other way as the transporters continued their work.”

After the four activists accused of human trafficking were relieved of their charges, they spoke at a press conference, encouraging those directly aiding migrants and refugees to continue their work.

“We are not even a radical group,” Søgaard said. “We are just saying the same things that groups like the United Nations are saying [about the migration crisis]. Yet, there is still resistance to our efforts.” At the end of the day, these so-called human traffickers were just helping others in need with a lift to wherever they were going.

“We all have a right to security and a safe place for us and our children,” she continued. “We can’t just close up our borders and live comfortable lives.”

Campaign strategy analysis: direct networked action

Fight for $15: Directed-network campaigning in action

A well coordinated campaign is opening up grassroots power and crossing movement boundaries

American unions have been losing members and influence for over 30 years so it’s notable when a labor campaign changes wage policies across the U.S. and forces corporate giants such as Walmart and McDonald’sto bend to its demands. Using directed-network campaigning, the Fight for $15 is shifting power in the direction of America’s workers.

Marching during a Fight for $15 rally: directed-network campaigningThe Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-supported Fight for $15 seeks a $15 per hour minimum wage across the United States. The campaign is being fought at the federal level, where the minimum wage is currently a paltry $7.25, while also targeting big retail employers with demands for higher worker pay. So far, the campaign’s greatest successes have been at the state and local level. Fight for $15 has secured wage increases in over 20 states and several major American cities including Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.

Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary during Bill Clinton’s presidency, noted that the movement’s organising strategy and tactics are fundamentally different than other recent labor campaigns.

“It’s more decentralized, for one thing, with lots of people getting involved in all sorts of ways,” Reich told us. Traditional labor campaigns focus on one employer at a time while this movement crosses boundaries to involve workers from sectors as diverse as fast food, giant retailers, major hotels and hospitals.

April Verrett quote. Directed-network campaigning and Fight for $15.

Fight for $15 is also breaking ground using directed-network campaign strategies similar to those used by other breakthrough campaigns including Bernie Sanders’ primary race and various fronts of the global climate movement.

The Networked Change Report: A blueprint for 21st century campaigning

Together with Jason Mogus and colleagues at NetChange Consulting, I recently completed a deep dive into the modern advocacy landscape with the intention of uncovering the common patterns behind today’s winning campaigns. Our study focused on 47 campaigns achieving some degree of policy or cultural change and especially those that punched above their weight.

While we looked at big institutional campaigns like those of the American Association of Retired People and grassroots upstart movements like Occupy Wall Street, we were most interested in newer campaigns that had run on a mix of grassroots power and central strategic control, a model that we call “directed-network campaigning.”

In a nutshell, directed-network campaigning is a hybrid form of top-down and bottom-up mobilization exemplified by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, 350.org and the Fight for $15. All of the above married old power and new while enabling extensive grassroots-led initiatives. They also powerfully framed their causes and directed campaign momentum towards shared goals and milestones. As a result, these campaigns were able to rapidly scale participation and resources while scoring impressive national victories.

Fight for $15 brings directed-network campaigning principles to life

The strategic and tactical approaches common to all directed-network campaigns may be grouped into four principles. Collectively, these four principles map out how campaigners are running efficient blends of people-power and central control. These include opening to grassroots power, building cross-movement network hubs, framing a compelling cause and running with focus and discipline. Fight for $15 roots itself firmly in each one of these areas.

Opening to grassroots power, the Fight for $15 uses a distributed model to spark local worker-led protests and strikes all across the country. These self-starting events are supported by resources such as “how to start a local strike” guides and support staff who train local leaders. The result is a vast constellation of city and state-based Fight for $15 groups across the U.S. and several other countries, each with its own local branding and messaging. The voices of local organisers and worker-activists are heavily favored over those of union bosses in movement communications and press work.

From the beginning, Fight for $15 was configured to make wider adoption by cross-movement networkspossible and probable. Whereas traditional union drives focus on rank and file members, Fight for $15 opened up to workers of all sectors on the low end of the pay scale, including many not affiliated with the SEIU. Campaign organisers made conscious efforts to reach out to Occupy Wall Street sympathizers and the Movement for Black Lives (Black Lives Matter), lending their support on the streets after racial justice protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri. In this way, they brought a diverse and powerful alliance of outside groups to support the workers during strikes and marches.

Calling out McDonald's - directed-network campaigning and Fight for $15

Fight for $15’s approach to issue framing also helps explain its appeal beyond labor circles. By lining up with larger issues of social and racial inequality as well as economic injustice, Fight for $15 plugged into deeper social currents already active in the U.S. The campaign chose as villains big corporations that could afford to pay higher wages (Walmart and McDonalds). These companies became focal points for organising actions. Using clever storytelling, the campaign exposed scandalous corporate worker policies, such as McDonalds encouraging its workers to use food stamps, to help underline the basic injustices that low-paid workers regularly face in America.

While clearly open to local leadership and wider cross-movement input, the Fight for $15 also runs a tight ship internally. Along with the financial and staff resources SEIU provides, Fight for $15 partners closely with experienced campaign consulting and public relations firms. Together, leaders centralise planning to guide local groups towards shared moments and milestones such as their April 15th cross-country strike actions. This coordination helps ensure that the Fight for $15’s impact is felt at the local, state and national levels as all play crucial roles in American wage policy decisions.

Big risk, big rewards

Unlike traditional union campaigns that focus on improving benefits and/or wages only for members, Fight for $15 took a big risk by expanding its scope of workers – and targets. Union executives would have been under fire if big investments in funding and staff time did not lead to clear impact. The risk has paid off for both union and wider constituencies.

A Fight for $15 leader we spoke with off the record reports that the campaign has led to unprecedented gains in union negotiations with major employers nationwide. Wage justice has become a national conversation as cities and states across the country have raised the minimum wage and Hillary Clinton has supported the movement throughout her presidential campaign. During a recent international SEIU conference, a large majority of union members expressed their satisfaction with this progress and voted to renew their support for the campaign.

Hopefully, the Fight for $15 will inspire others to open up campaign tactics and to reach for greater impact. Many organisations today rely on a traditional top-down campaigning model that struggles to integrate people’s contributions and build power. Fight for $15 shows how a sizeable organisation, in this case a union, can experiment with new hybrid campaigning models that maintain some controls over strategy, timing and framing while unleashing the energy of self-starting grassroots supporters. The results have been encouraging. With wide cross-sector support and an engaged grassroots base of affected workers, the campaign is finding ways to scale up power to match the scope of the problems facing American workers.

How to be SMART while Building your Campaign

Your campaign objectives should be:







This will help you set clear targets that can become a reality, focus your campaign team around agreed upon goals and objectives,  remain on target throughout your work, stick to set deadlines, continuously assess your progress, and utilize all your resources.


  1. Specific


Your campaign must have clear and specific objectives to guide your actions and goals to your ultimate campaign vision. Establishing SMART objectives involves creating a campaign timeline and stating particular steps needed to keep on track.


Unspecific Objectives Specific Objectives
Help LGBTQ homeless youth.
  • Raising awareness of the amount of LGBTQ youth made homeless every year.
  • Open/collaborate with shelters willing to deal directly with LGBTQ youth.
  • Contact stakeholders who would be willing to support and advance the cause.
  • Create a support center/community center for LGBTQ youth to receive medical advice, counselling, career advice, etc.
Improve working conditions for LGBTQ individuals
  • Lobby for anti-discriminatory legislation.
  • Contact relevant stakeholders for collaboration opportunities or letters of support
  • Establish anti-discriminatory policies in the workplace.
  • Organize mandatory anti-discrimination/anti-harassment training for employees and employers.


Whatever you decide to focus on, knowing what advocacy groups are already working on similar initiatives and what key pieces of legislations may affect your cause will help inform your timeline for your campaign objectives and ultimate vision. This will also provide an opportunity for you to form collaborations with other organizations and get statements of support from members of the community, medical professionals, or politicians to advance your cause to overturn or resolve particular social, political, or legal issues.


  1. Measurable & Achievable


Making sure your campaign objectives can be accomplished allows you to measure your successes and analyze your campaign advancements. Whether your campaign is ambitious or relatively straightforward, it is important for you and your team to be able to recognize and work clearly on achievable objectives.


The victories or milestones throughout your campaign will be indicative of the success of your campaign. This requires keeping track of the WHAT, WHY, WHERE, WHO, and HOW. It is important to not only know WHO the stakeholders are, but WHY they are for/against your cause, WHAT the pressing issues advancing/delaying your successes are, WHERE to focus your strategies, and HOW to target pressure points/people that will help you get one step closer to your campaign objectives or ultimate vision . To achieve this it is a good idea to review your SWOT and the internal/external factors influencing your campaign (see SWOT).   


  1. Relevant


Now that you have set your campaign objectives, it is important to remain on track. At times social or political opportunities present themselves. While it may seem necessary or even natural to capitalize on these moments (through a direct action), this opportunity may also derail you from your original campaign objectives. In these situations, it is advisable to review your campaign objectives. This will help determine if any planned actions for to the opportunity that has presented itself will be relevant to the course of action/objectives you had originally anticipated.


  1. Time-Bound


Both your campaign objectives and plan need to be time-bound. This means a specific target date must be set for each of your actions, specific objectives, and overall plan will be achieved.


For example: If your campaign is meant to span over a period or 1, 2, or 5+ years, then you’ll need to set dates for when each of your objectives will be accomplished within this time frame. By updating, reassessing, and following the procedures for monitoring and evaluating your internal and external factors that arise during your campaign, you will be able to assess whether your anticipated timeframe is feasible.


Setting Campaign Objectives

Identify the Problem – Be Specific!

While organizing, it’s easy to get lost in all the ways varying aspects intersect with the broader cause we are trying to work for and change. An essential process before implementing any action is identifying an issue or problem that can be tied to the broader frameworks of our cause. The purpose of this is to help you, as facilitator, and your group/organization narrow down your focus, allows members to understand each other’s different opinions and priorities, and make room for effective actions that will lead towards substantial gains in achieving your overall goal.

For example: If your group or action’s objectives are focused on LGBTQ rights, then identify the specific problem you would like to tackle such as: LGBTQ homeless youths, Anti-bullying campaigns, or AIDS awareness. Once that’s decided you can go on to identify your goals, vision, stakeholders, and overall campaign strategy!

Identify Goals and Ultimate Vision

After you have identified the specific issue your group/organization would like to focus on, it is time to establish the key indicators that mark your group’s progress. These can be considered the victories along the way that demonstrate important milestones passed in reaching the ultimate vision that you have been working towards.

Questions to Ask Yourself while Identifying your Goals and Vision

  • What problem(s) are you trying to solve?
  • How do you imagine the world after you have resolved the problem? tangible , outcomes, expected outcomes of the campaign, (policy change? win court case?)
  • What are the changes needed to resolve this issue?
    (developing key strategies)

Identify a Target Audience

Every cause will have particular stakeholders, targets, and audiences that need to be considered before you can move forward with your actions. Stakeholders can be anyone (people, groups, organizations, and institutions) that are involved in or affected by the problem you are trying to solve. These people may be supporters of your campaign, be affected by the issue in one way or another, be responsible for the problem, or be in a position of power to change the situation. Either way, when creating your campaign, you need to know everything about your stakeholders, their relationship to each other and the problem at hand, and identify their willingness or unwillingness to help you advance your cause in order to come up with an effective strategy to resolve the problem.

Here are some examples of questions that will help you identify and map out your stakeholders provided by the Tactical Technology Collective:

Discuss the interaction that is at the root of the problem your campaign wants to address. Who creates the problem? Who is affected by it? How and why are these entities connected to one another?
Continue, taking notes as you go along, until you can identify the interaction between entities (nodes) that most represents what you seek to change.
Identify all of the nodes between which this kind of interaction is happening.
Place these nodes at the center of your map.
Identify the relationships of these central nodes with others nodes on your map. Start locally and move outward regionally, nationally, internationally and globally, if relevant. Depending on your problem, expand your map with two or more levels of nodes (marking these in a clear way):
First level: entities with direct contact to the central nodes (family / local)
Second level: entities with contact to the first level (regional / national)
Third level: nodes with general influence on the issue (international / institutional)
Next, draw lines representing relationships between these nodes and identify the kind of relationship they have; for example:
Mutual benefit

Building your Overarching Strategic Frameworks

Now that you have decided what to campaign on, what your goals and ultimate vision are, and who your key stakeholders are, you are ready to create your campaign strategy. The first step is identifying what would need to change for the problem to be resolved. This is a good time to assess your organization, the work you have done so far, and the cause you are working for.

  • Identify where you will have the most impact.
  • Asses which objectives and goals you can achieve.
  • Identify who will help you achieve these goals.

One of the simplest ways to assess this information is to create a SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis. This is a popular and effective way to measure your campaign strengths, weaknesses, and everything in between:



Set Campaign Objectives

Your campaign objectives should help you map out, plan, and design the actions and events that will achieve the desired outcomes. This will also be vital in monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of your campaign. It is important to do this in order to be able to assess if your campaign actions are yielding the necessary results to get you closer to your ultimate vision.

Campaign objectives need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, & Time-Bound).

Check out this mechanism of change worksheet provided by The Change Agency.

Storming the Stage: A History of Disruptions to Advance Our Rights

Excellent article from the Advocate


Storming the Stage: A History of Disruptions to Advance Our Rights

Storming the Stage: A History of Disruptions to Advance Our Rights

Jennicet Gutiérrez, a transgender woman and undocumented immigrant, received both praise and condemnation for interrupting President Obama’s speech at a White House LGBT Pride reception in June to call for an end to deportations. But whatever you think of her action, it’s inarguable that it’s part of a long tradition in our movement.

For more than 40 years, LGBT activists have been interrupting speakers, forcing their way into events or significant spaces, and sometimes even throwing pies to either challenge our adversaries or push our allies. Here we look at some of these instances we call “storming the stage.” We’re avoiding sanctioned protest marches, like the various marches on Washington, or spontaneous reactions to injustice, such as the Stonewall rebellion, the Compton’s Cafeteria uprising, or the White Night riots — they have all been important in our history, but this article focuses on a specific kind of action

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Above: Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and John E. Fryer in disguise as Dr. H. Anonymous at an APA panel discussing psychiatry and homosexuality. Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen (Wikimedia Commons)Gay Activists Disrupt Psychiatrists’ Conference, 1970
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, but the process began when gay activists invaded and disrupted the APA’s conference in San Francisco in 1970. Outside the convention center, some formed a human chain; inside, some greeted psychiatrist Irving Bieber with “shouting matches and derisive laughter,” according to Hannah S. Decker’s 2013 book The Making of DSM-III: A Diagnostic Manual’s Conquest of American Psychiatry. “Pandemonium broke out,” Decker writes, and speakers and activists exchanged heated language. Gay advocates disrupted the APA convention again in 1971, but in 1972 the event included an officially sanctioned gay panel, featuring legendary activists Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and John E. Fryer in disguise as Dr. H. Anonymous — he was a psychiatrist who could have lost his license if his homosexuality became known. And the next year, the APA decided it would no longer consider homosexuality a mental illness. “The gay activists were the catalyst,” New York City–based psychiatrist Jack Drescher told Reuters this year.


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A Pie in the Face for Anita Bryant, 1977
Bryant, a popular singer turned spokeswoman for the Florida citrus industry, added “antigay crusader” to her résumé in 1977. A conservative Christian, she became enraged when the Miami–Dade County government enacted a gay rights ordinance that year. Her activism led to a voter repeal of the ordinance and a statewide ban on adoption by gay people, repealed just this year (it had been unenforceable since a 2010 court decision). Not satisfied with campaigning for antigay discrimination in Florida alone, she took her crusade national. At a press conference in Des Moines on October 14, 1977, gay rights activist Tom Higgins threw a pie in Bryant’s face.She commented, “At least it was a fruit pie,” then prayed for Higgins and burst into tears. Her antigay activism did serious harm in the short run but was counterproductive in the long run, providing an opportunity to educate the public about gay people. “In the weeks before and after Dade County, more was written about homosexuality than during the total history of mankind,” Harvey Milk said later.

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Above: Bowen (second from left); Reagan (far right).Boos for Reagan AIDS Policies, 1987
AIDS activists were incensed by Ronald Reagan’s long silence about the disease and lack of action on it, as well as the wrongheaded proposals of his administration, such as a call for routine voluntary HIV testing for all and mandatory testing for some. At the 1987 International Conference on AIDS, held in Washington, D.C., President Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen were heckled, booed, and hissed by activists. Hundreds stood in protest during a speech by Bowen and attempted to shout him down; a group called the Lavender Hill Mob was behind the action. Fortunately, routine/mandatory testing did not become the law of the land, although some other harmful policies were enacted in the Reagan years — for instance, a ban on the entry of HIV-positive immigrants and visitors into the U.S., finally lifted under President Obama in 2009.



ACT UP Shuts Down the FDA, 1988
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, founded in 1987, took direct action to new levels. One of its highest-profile efforts came October 11, 1988, when hundreds of protesters tried to enter the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters in Rockville, Md., in a call for reforming the drug approval process to speed up the availability of AIDS medications. They did not manage to enter the building, but they did block access to it, and the FDA shut down for a day. And the agency soon began seeking input from AIDS activists and adopted many of their ideas.

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ACT UP Confronts Catholicism and Capitalism, 1989
ACT UP continued driving home its points in 1989. In December of that year, dozens of ACT UP members and allies disrupted a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, condemning Cardinal John O’Connor’s statements against gay sex and condom use; he urged sexual abstinence to fight AIDS, saying, “Good morality is good medicine.” Some protesters chained themselves to pews, and others lay down in the cathedral’s aisles, while thousands more demonstrated outside. “O’Connor says get back, we say fight back,” they chanted. More than 100 people were arrested. Just two months earlier, ACT UP activists had infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange, chained themselves to a balcony, and halted trading in protest of the cost of AIDS drugs. Shortly thereafter, drugmaker Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT, the first AIDS med approved by the FDA.

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Above: A cartoon by Danny SotomayorDanny Sotomayor Speaks Truth to Power, 1989
Sotomayor, a Chicago-based nationally syndicated cartoonist, was a thorn in the side of many,including President George H.W. Bush, commentators Andy Rooney and Mike Royko, and most especially Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of another famous Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley). Eventually, the second Mayor Daley became known as an ally of LGBT people and those with HIV or AIDS, but his first few years in office were rocky. Sotomayor, a founder of the Chicago chapter of ACT UP, often criticized Daley’s response to the AIDS crisis in the city; at a 1989 press conference where the recently elected mayor announced an AIDS action plan, Sotomayor shouted him down, calling the mayor’s words “garbage.” It was one of many confrontations the cartoonist had with the mayor and other powerful types, making a major mark in his brief life. Sotomayor died of AIDS complications in 1992 at the age of 33.

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Queer Nation on the Oscars Red Carpet, 1992
They didn’t quite disrupt the Academy Awards, but activists with Queer Nation managed to take their cause to the red carpet prior to the ceremony on March 30, 1992. The group was objecting to the portrayal of LGBT people as villains in high-profile films. Two had been released the previous year and were Oscar-nominated: The Silence of the Lambs, which would go on to sweep the major awards that night, featured a transgender serial killer, and JFK, a largely fictional “historical” film, had a gay cabal plotting the president’s assassination. Another was about to be released — Basic Instinct, starring Sharon Stone as a bisexual serial murderer. Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police in riot gear outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, resulting in punches being thrown, arrests made, and “Fag” stickers slapped on 24-foot-tall Oscar statues. “We were told that we would be given room on the sidewalk,” protester Annette Gaudino told The Advocate in 1992. “The next thing I know, the police just came out swinging.”

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Lesbian Avengers Invade the U.N., 1994
Direct action groups proliferated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Lesbian Avengers, founded in 1992 in New York City, stormed the stage at a United Nations Development Fund for Women conference in 1994. Members of the group grabbed the mike and told attendees, “You can’t raise chickens in jail,” making the point that economic development wasn’t a sufficient solution when in some nations, lesbians were persecuted and prosecuted simply because of their identity.


A Christmas Surprise for N.Y. State Senator, 2009
As states began considering marriage equality bills, it looked like New York would join the equality column in 2009, but the legislation failed to pass. State Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens had initially voiced support for the bill but then voted against it, being one of a handful of Democrats who did so, and in reaction an ACT UP-style LGBT group called the Power crashed his Christmas party in December of that year. It happened to be the one-year anniversary of Monserrate’s attack on his girlfriend Karla Giraldo, dragging her through his apartment building’s lobby, resulting in his conviction on misdemeanor assault charges. “Hiram believes marriage should be between one man, one woman, and a broken bottle,” screamed one protester, referring to the accusation that Monserrate had slashed his girlfriend’s face with broken glass, something the senator claimed was an accident. “It’s the one-year anniversary of Hiram slashing his girlfriend! Hiram’s a wife beater! He can get married and we can’t!” screamed the same unidentified protester before throwing the event into chaos and being tossed out of the party. Members of the Power also called out Monserrate’s gay chief of staff, Wayne Mahlke. Monserrate was subsequently expelled from the Senate, and New York legislators approved a marriage equality bill in 2011.


Activists Interrupt Bill Clinton at AIDS Conference, 2014
LGBT and AIDS activists had high hopes when Bill Clinton became president in 1993, but they held his feet to the fire after he dashed those hopes with legislation such as “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. Advocates continued confronting him post-presidency as he worked on global concerns. At the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014, he was speaking on the state of HIV prevention and treatment in Asia and Africa when activists marched to the front of the auditorium chanting, “Clinton end AIDS with the Robin Hood tax,” a proposed tax on stock trades to help fund AIDS services. The former president ended up being a textbook example of how to respond; he kept his cool and let the protesters have their say, Australia’s Star Observer reported. As they continued chanting, he asked the audience, “Have you got the message?” then said, “Give them a hand and ask them to let the rest of us talk,” upon which the demonstrators took their seats.


Queer People of Color Occupy Gay Bars in Castro, 2015
In reaction to violence against people of color and transgender Americans, 150 activists with Queer Trans People of Color marched into two bars in San Francisco’s Castro District that serve a largely white clientele. In support of #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter, “they chose to interrupt business-as-usual over the Martin Luther King Day weekend at two bars, Toad Hall and Badlands, regarded as sites of middle-class white privilege,” S.F. Weekly reported. As the decried what they saw as the larger LGBT movement’s half-hearted response to the killings of marginalized people, they temporarily shut down Toad Hall and drew reactions “ranging from tearful embraces to rudeness and physical encounters,” according to the paper.


Trans Activists Storm the Stage at Creating Change, 2015
This year has continued to be marked by direct action. At the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Denver in February, about 100 transgender activists and allies,led by Bamby Salcedo, stormed the stage and interrupted emcee Kate Clinton, carrying handmade signs and chanting “Jessie Presente!” in reference to 17-year-old queer Latina Jessie Hernandez, who was shot to death by Denver police the previous week. Salcedo demanded better accountability on the part of police and the criminal justice system, and called for LGBTQ organizations to include transgender people on their boards and staffs as decision-makers. “If you serve us, you need to include us,” Salcedo said to a crowd cheering and raising their fists in solidarity. Task Force deputy executive director Russell Roybal thanked the demonstrators for their input and announced that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock would not speak as planned.


#BlackOutPride Protesters Disrupt Chicago LGBT Parade, 2015
The LGBT Pride parades held in many cities on July 28 of this year had a particularly festive atmosphere, as the U.S. Supreme court had ruled in favor of nationwide marriage equality two days earlier. But a group called #BlackOutPride called out racism among white gays and drew attention to the situation of trans people and people of color. Eight people interrupted the Chicago parade with a die-in, lying on the pavement, as others with the group stood around them carrying signs. A statement was read explaining “why, as more than one sign declared, ‘Marriage is not enough,’” TruthOut reported. The statement was this: “Queer youth experiencing homelessness, and the plight of trans and queer communities of color, is not merely an issue of transphobia and homophobia in Black and Brown communities; it is equally about classism, racism and gentrification. It is about the draconian measures of austerity that push our people onto the street, refuse us reentrance into real estate and the job market, and the police and prison systems which work together to ensure we stay locked out. Young, Black, Brown, Native, trans, poor, working, immigrant and disabled people are suffering because every system of governance in this country is geared to destroy us.”