It would be natural to experience a shudder of revulsion at the thought of planning a media campaign. Manipulation by the mass media has disgusted so many people, and has been so analyzed and bemoaned by those same media, that many of us may feel tempted to retreat from such sliminess into cleaner pastimes – like pig husbandry.
But having survived one modest media campaign – mounted by a local coalition of groups opposing contra aid – we urge anyone who wants to have a political impact to peer into the electronic abyss. Are we making a Faustian bargain by playing the media’s game? Good question. But activists, perhaps fortunately, often lack two major prerequisites for being truly tempted: massive amounts of money and influence. We have to discover our own effective strategies and tactics, and to invent creative, principled ways of using the media to educate and move people without manipulating them.
In our campaign, for example, in addition to a well-planned program of radio and newspaper ads, letters to the editor, T-shirts, and other "straight" media, we also used a technique called "low-intensity advertising" – humorous classified ads with messages like "Cut off compulsive intervention, stop smoking guns, lose millions in ugly budget fat." Another read, "Elliot Abrams . . . ‘Not authorized to tell the truth.’ But you are! CALL CONGRESS." There is still life in the old French slogan of 1968, "l’imagination au pouvoir" – power to the imagination.
We also discovered that behind the Oz-like visage of the news industry sit a variety of harried humans buffeted by political winds and internal tensions – some of whom respond favorably to offerings of straightforward substance. We used a range of means to reach these humans behind the controls, from press conferences to news releases to having our spokespeople call news organizations directly.
But our work was not without problems. The tendency of many reporters, for example, is to latch onto the human interest angle of any story – which necessitates spelling out your political message in ten-foot-tall, day-glo letters.
A related problem is the newsgatherers’ penchant for flamboyant images, regardless of whether they are representative. If someone burns a flag and screams into a bullhorn, the odds are high they will be representing your demonstration on the evening news. The antidotes to these problems are:
(l) Make sure that your demonstration is well-organized, and that it powerfully says what you want it to say, both visually and aurally. We got excellent TV coverage, for example, with a caravan of twelve cars carrying big signs on top. They circled the Seattle Federal Building honking and banging pots and pans when Reagan sent troops to Honduras.
(2) Be ready with knowledgeable spokespeople who are prepared to give reporters a good 15-second sound bite and to talk persuasively at greater length. Hand out a brief official statement in writing as well, and aggressively (but amiably) seek out reporters and introduce them to the spokespeople. No matter how well you prepare, though, expect reporters to make their own choices of what and what not to cover.
Other things we learned were the importance of:
Planning * Map out, carry out, and then evaluate your work in a methodical way. Although our plans were often changed as soon as they were written down, they provided a central reference point when we charged off in ten different directions.
Clear Themes * Define, concisely and precisely, what you want to say, and then say it over and over. Our central theme ("Nicaragua Is Not Our Enemy") and the logo that incorporated it were used in everything we did, from T-shirts to buttons to newspaper ads to letterhead.
Targeting * Determine whom you are trying to reach. For example, we reviewed poll data to see who might be motivated to support or oppose contra aid, and our street work (such as leafletting or tabling at supermarkets) gave us a body of anecdotal material on people’s gut reactions.
The temptation can enter here to try to take the easy way out – to figure out what buttons to push to manipulate people. But it is critical to keep in sight the larger goals of building a movement and shifting the terms of political discourse.
So did we succeed? Locally, our campaign didn’t swing any Congressional votes – but we did raise the political cost of supporting the contras, and we also helped to create an atmosphere of public concern about the issue. We helped solidify a strong group of informed non-interventionists, and perhaps made a lot of uninvolved observers scratch their heads and wonder why all these people were so riled up about a little country like Nicaragua.
Seattle’s Emergency Coalition Against Contra Aid (ECACA) mounted an 18-month long, $20,000 media campaign with the help of 25 volunteers and the donated services of advertising professionals. Their complete report gives very useful and detailed information on the specifics of mounting a media campaign of any size, and it is available from the author at 441 25th Ave. E., Seattle, WA 98112 (enclose $3 to cover printing and postage).