Infrastructure matters. To this end, CSOs across the world should become more active in advocating for media policies and governance of the internet that take into consideration civil society needs. CSOs should learn from groups in various countries across the world, including those in Argentina, India, Thailand, Tunisia and the United States, that have advocated, often with astounding success, for media reform. In this respect, collaboration and the sharing of expertise and resources, as well as the compilation of databases of best practices, are a must.
The World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), for example, has long run a policy programme supporting groups engaging in policy advocacy and willing to learn from each other’s experience. As recent success stories teach us, CSOs would also benefit from more integration with academia, where much of the policy-related expertise is housed. In Argentina, one of the most progressive media laws in the world, which assigns 30 percent of airwaves to community media, was drafted also thanks to a partnership between CSOs and sympathetic individuals and groups in academia. Projects such as the Mapping Global Media Policy project aim precisely at making action-ready research available and understandable beyond the walls of universities.
However, infrastructure alone cannot do much unless CSOs also change their attitudes towards communication. If organised civil society is to play the role of a “superpower” in the international context, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once suggested, then the communication strategies of civil society groups have to take a range of limitations into account, and work to change them. In what follows, this contribution reflects on six limitations endemic to CSOs, which should also be addressed to win the challenge of an effective communication.
- Civil society groups and coalitions must take communication seriously. They should always include communication tactics in their strategies, and incorporate them in their activity planning from the start. Fortunately, the current global scenario seems to favour civil society: many of civil society’s flagship issues, such as climate change, water, alternative energy sources, the crisis of food prices, the gender perspective, and the role of the South and of emerging countries, are now part of the global media agenda. Further, audiences across the globe are avidly looking for clearer perspectives on the future of the planet, and are hungry for possible solutions to current pressing problems. To make the best out of the increasing popularity of the issues they address, CSOs should rethink their communication strategies in order to allow for both greater public awareness and greater public engagement and participation. The challenge is to find the best narratives, as well as the best channels, to reach the general public, while at the same time fostering a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.
- Within CSOs, communication cannot be the sole responsibility of spokespersons, communications officers and press offices. A good communication strategy that focuses on action and advocacy should foresee the participation of all members of CSOs, and of its leaders in particular. Recent experiences in the field show that although there is a general concern about communication strategies, when CIVICUS and IPS, for example, have promoted joint initiatives to facilitate dialogue among major news media and CSOs, there has not been strong participation by civil society leadership. Although the motivations behind this lack of involvement might be valid (most notably, the lack of time and resources), these experiences show that for some opinion-makers in the sector, communication is neither urgent nor part of the agenda. Until the realm of organised civil society becomes fully aware that communication is one of the key factors in the battle of ideas and proposals, CSOs will continue to play a secondary role and make it unnecessarily difficult for their messages to get across.
- More coordination is needed in order to speak with a unified voice to policy-makers. Although civil society’s themes and fields of action are growing increasingly wide, there are several potential connections and overlaps. Policy-makers, however, tend to privilege clear and coherent messages that do not contain contradiction. This requires an intense coordination amongst CSOs active in the same field, if we are to avoid confusion and increase the impact of our advocacy. Civil society networks should put in place mechanisms to jointly reflect and raise awareness about their messages. For example, on the occasion of large events such as the June 2012 Rio+20 summit, civil society actors specialising in different but related areas, such as the environment, gender, poverty and economic justice, to name a few, should have coordinated their messages in order to speak more loudly, jointly and clearly. By making their messages more coherent, CSO impact will likely be higher. To this end, related networks of CSOs should call for regular (perhaps annual) meetings to define the central axes around which to develop joint discourses, messages and advocacy campaigns. In this way, and safeguarding each participant’s style, organisational profile and the diversity of viewpoints, CSOs would be able to promote the aggregation and coherence of messages and discourses.
- The traditional tool of press releases, still widely used by CSOs, have little impact when these are more focused on promoting the brand, i.e. the specific CSO, rather than the themes and the actions of the organisation. At two meetings of media editors and civil society leaders organised by CIVICUS and IPS at the CIVICUS World Assembly in 2007 and 2008, senior journalists encouraged advocates to “stop filling our mailboxes with press releases that don’t inform about the issues that interest us and just praise your organisations. You must be aware that these kind of messages are immediately trashed.” At those same meetings, editors expressed their interest in having good information about the main issues and facts with which civil society constantly engages. The potential exists, but taking full advantage of it depends on CSO capacity to adapt the messages to be conveyed to the characteristics and needs of different information channels.
- In order to make progress on these challenges, training is becoming more important each day. CSOs must acquire expertise in the field of communications in order to get their messages across. This implies training for specialised communication officers so that they can exchange views and experiences with their colleagues and increase the quality and impact of their work; training for small and medium-sized CSOs that are excluded from the powerful media game and need to improve their skills for more active and qualified participation; and training for journalists, so that they understand better the actions and messages of civil society.
- There is a tendency amongst organised civil society to distinguish between traditional media (broadcast and print, with the inclusion of the internet, insofar as it is another platform that hosts text and footage) and the so-called new social media. The challenge, however, does not lie in the tools but in the content CSOs wish to transmit. The tools can potentially increase civil society’s possibilities for action and mobilisation, but for the most part they have not yet translated into greater impact of CSO messages on people, even if CSO issues are now part of the global news agenda. What might be the potential from new social media for the World Social Forum through the internet, or the complex levels of coordination required among different social movements, learning from the role of social media in the extraordinary events in North Africa and in the Occupy mobilisations?