Arasa says show us the money!

One of the best media advocacy efforts I’ve come across in recent months is the “Lords of the Bling” campaign, by the Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (Arasa).

The campaign involves a range of media material showing how much money Africa’s political leaders have spent on extravagant purchases, and then illustrating how much treatment for HIV and tuberculosis that same money could buy.

They’ve printed mock dollar notes, on one side with the face of a leader such as King Mswati of Swaziland or Muammar Gaddaffi, or George Bush, with the value of the ‘dollar note’ being the amount of money wasted:

On the reverse side, that same dollar figure is translated into the amount of treatment it could have bought:

Then, best of all as far as I’m concerned is the video on YouTube, bringing it all to life, with a great soundtrack:


From poverty to power

It’s a book that I’ve looked at every time I’m in a bookshop, but somehow haven’t yet bought. But now it’s definitely on my to-buy list. The book is called From Poverty to Power — how active citizens and effective states can change the world. It’s written by Duncan Green, head of research for Oxfam GB.

From poverty to power

I’ve always wanted to buy it, but somehow didn’t want to spend the money. But then I came across Duncan Green’s blog, and realised that this is a man to pay attention to.

Green’s blog site is a mine of fantastic resources, including his own tips and views on advocacy, development, mobile phones and more. He has loads of good advice, such as his recent post, “Why demanding ‘political will’ is lazy and unproductive”.

In this piece he argues that organisations wanting to bring about real change need to analyse the power dynamics at play and use this understanding to make their demands winnable. Calling for ‘political will’ is useless, he says, as change happens not just because politicians want something, but as result of the interplay of all sorts of factors: power dynamics, demographics, disasters, the pressures of coalitions, and so on.

But I also love the way that Green has embraced the principles of social media, offering many of his own resources for others to plunder and use. A good example is his posting of 8 of his own powerpoint presentations on issues related to development.

You can’t ignore the mobile web

I’ve had a bit of involvement in the use of cell phones in advocacy and communication campaigns, and for a long time I’ve believed that most organisations should be taking mobiles much more seriously than they already do.

But some recent meetings have again brought home to me in a powerful way.

At the recent Digital Citizens Indaba and Highway Africa Conference at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, I attended a session by Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous, from Vodacom. As part of their workshop on Social Media in Everyday Life, Vincent Maher presented some eye-opening statistics on the extent to which people are using cell phones to access the Internet.

All across Africa, in almost every country, Internet usage via cell phone is growing like crazy — not by 10 or 20 percent, but by several hundred percent, year-on-year.For example, in the top 12 countries, the number of overall page views (on cell phones)  increased by 422% between April 2008 and April 2009. Over a similar period, the number of unique users increased by 169%.

It’s not just richer folks with contracts who are doing this. According to Maher, in South Africa, 90% of data users are on Prepaid. Most are young black men (aged 20-30), and about half are unemployed. 46% access the mobile Internet more than 5 times a day. For the vast majority of these people, their first contact with the Internet was through a mobile phone.

And don’t expect that people who access the Internet via cell phone are going to ‘graduate’ to using computers. Most of them primarily access the Internet through their phone, and use social networks ONLY on their phone — for example, Facebook, Vodacom’s service, The Grid, and of course, MXIT.

According to Maher, after being around for about a year, The Grid has 860 000 users in South Africa — that means it’s fast catching up to Facebook, with nearly 1-million users in South Africa.

But when it comes to social media on phones, the big kid on the block is definitely MXIT. If you don’t know it, MXIT is a cellphone-based social network and chat application developed in South Africa. It has caught on like wildfire among South Africa’s youth. According to Maher, it has over 12-million users.

Which brings me to the second meeting that had me sitting up and taking notice. I visited the Impact Centre in Athlone, Cape Town, where Marlon Parker works with a team of people to provide drug counselling to the youth, using MXIT. Parker is a lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and does this in his spare time. Using a specially-developed computer application, the counsellors sit at their computers at the centre, and from there they’re able to counsel young people using text, via MXIT. Counselling hours are at a set time each day. Users can log in to MXIT using the relevant key words, and they’re able to stay anonymous. According to Parker, in this way their small team of counsellors is able to assist some 10 000 youngsters across Cape Town.

Not only are these numbers impressive, but new social media such as MXIT offer something else — interactivity. With a few exceptions, expensive behaviour-change campaigns in traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV have generally failed miserably in telling people what they should be doing. But the new media are starting to show results, because they allow a whole different kind of communication and relationship between the participants. Parker’s small team of volunteers has been able to show impressive results, on a shoestring budget — they don’t get any funding at all. What’s more, because they’re on MXIT a lot and are constantly chatting to the youth, the counselling team is aware of new trends and developments on the street, long before they’ve come to the attention of the mainstream media – and even of parents and teachers.

Green and red cards for the media

I recently visited the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in Kampala, Uganda. Over time they have built some good relationships with the media. I am used  to a number of organisations having hard words for the media, but Cedovip seems to take a gentler approach — they do offer criticism when they’re unhappy with media coverage of domestic violence issues, but they do so gently. They also are careful to offer praise when it’s due. One of the ways they do this is by  sending out green and red cards – green for praise, and red for criticism.

Cedovip green card

Cedovip red card

Green and Red cards reverse

Cedovip’s director, Tina Musuya, was recently the focus of a full-page feature in the Saturday edition of the New Vision newspaper. The journalist asked her some awful questions but she handled if very well. Have a look here.

The power of images

I’ve just finishded reading Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild’s history of the British campaign to abolish slavery. It’s the story of what was essentially the first ever large-scale campaign for human rights — and as such, it still holds many lessons for  advocacy campaigns today.

One aspect of the campaign that really interested me was its use of images to mobilise people and turn public opinion. Too often I think, we place far too little emphasis on the power of well-constructed images. I’m one of the guilty, as I tend to be a word person.

This diagram of the slave ship Brookes had huge impact in an era before photography

This diagram of the slave ship Brookes had huge impact in an era before photography

One of the turning points of the anti-slavery campaign was when someone unearthed a diagram of a fully loaded slave ship, the Brookes. This image had an enormous impact on everyone who saw it, and proved to be one of the most powerful tools of the campaign. These days, almost everybody who has been to school, has seen the Brookes diagram.

Another tool in the campaign was a logo of a kneeling man in chains, bearing the slogan, Am I not a man and a brother?, which was put onto items of clothing such as cufflinks and hatpins — the precursor of T shirts and lapel buttons so common in present-day campaigns.

Visualising Information for Advocacy

Visualising Information for Advocacy

Well thought-out and designed images can often be used to instantly convey a message that can get lost in words — and with huge emotional impact. One of the best introductions to the use of visual elements in a campaign is a little booklet called VIsualising Information for Advocacy: An Introduction to Information Design. It’s available for free download here and is full of interesting examples and good advice.

To pay or not to pay

In my work supporting NGOs in media advocacy, there’s one thing that comes up again and again in conversations, but it’s almost never addressed in the several toolkits and handbooks one can find on engaging the media.

Everyone working on the ground acknowledges it’s a problem, but nobody seems to have much advice about how to deal with it.  I’m talking about the fact that in many countries, it’s difficult to get into the news media without paying for coverage. I think it’s high time that we had some serious discussion about this, and how to deal with it.

This issue of having to pay for media coverage comes in a number of different forms. Some examples are:
* Having to provide a ‘travel allowance’ for journalists before they’ll attend your event, or pay them to ensure the story appears
* In some countries (like Malawi and Zambia for example), a ‘press release’ is a paid-for advertisement, rather than simply information sent to a news outlet to alert them to a story, so that they follow up themselves.
* Many organisations when seeking coverage for their issue on radio or TV, are directed to the marketing department as a matter of course – they’re expected to  buy airtime rather than have their issue covered as news.
* Buying regular advertising space – which in more and more cases these days, has the additional benefit of making the editorial desk more likely to cover your story in the news section too.cases, will also make the  regular advertising — and in some cases now in SA — if you advertise, you are far more likely to get editorial coverage too.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between legitimate and open payment, and payment that’s unethical, or sits in an ethical grey area. Buying advertising or sponsoring programming is legitimate, as it’s open and clear — it’s obvious to everyone that a commercial transaction has taken place. But this needs to be clearly distinguished from paid-for exposure that poses as legitimate journalism.

It can sometimes be a very good idea for organisations to buy media time and space if they have good material and want to be in control of how it is disseminated — to be absolutely sure that it gets out, and reaches the intended audience. But when organisations to take out paid-for space or time, they need to be sure that their materials are appropriate. Too often, particularly in the case of print, organisations fill their paid-for space with material that is dense, full of jargon and technical terminology, and unlikely to be read by many people — and so waste their money.

In the case of grassroots and community media, NGOs and community-based organisations looking for coverage are often outraged to find they’re expected to pay. Many community-owned media organisations justify this by saying they need to earn funding in order to survive. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but still believe it’s important that all paid-for content is clearly identified as such, and that financial considerations should never have an influence on news coverage.

But what about paying for news coverage? I think it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, leaving aside ethical issues for the moment, there’s the problem of resources. Many small organisations just don’t have the budget for the kind of news coverage they need in order to push their advocacy goals. This link to my second objection — inequality. The need to pay for coverage means only the bigger, richer organisations get exposure (not to mention the for-profit corporations). Thirdly, it’s bad for journalism — when coverage is for sale to the highest bidder, many important and controversial issues will fail to get onto the agenda, either because there’s no money in it, or because the media organisation does not want to anger an advertiser. When ethics goes out the window, so too does credibility, sooner or later.  And when audiences start to feel they cannot trust what they see or hear, they’ll stop watching, listening or reading.

The issue of credibility is also a problem for organisations seeking exposure. Research has shown that audiences are more likely to believe messages when those messages are perceived to come from an objective source, rather than a source with a vested interest. This means that for advocacy campaigns, paid-for content (even if legitimate and open) is likely to be far less effective than genuine news coverage, in bringing about changed attitudes or behaviour.

Many organisations seeking to use the media for advocacy purposes are aware of all this but still feel they have no choice — that unless they pay up, they will not make the news. It’s a vicious circle — the more organisations do pay, the more others will also have to pay. So what are the answers?

Firstly the vicious circle has to be interrupted. I believe that all NGOs and CBOs — including the big, international ones, should make a principled decision not to pay for news coverage. This may have some negative short-term implications, but will pay off in the long term. But it means that everybody has to play ball. If some start paying, it’s game over.

Secondly, unpaid-for exposure is possible, and has always been possible. But it takes time and effort, and creativity. Members of NGOs need to learn how journalists think, and how they identify news. They need to put into practice the techniques that skilled PR practitioners use, for getting free exposure: stage interesting news-worthy events, build relationships with journalists, write effective news releases, and so forth.

It takes time and effort, and some resources, but is ultimately worth it. Those who are skilled in engaging with the media can generate free coverage whose value far exceeds what they’d be able to afford if they had to pay for it — in financial terms, but also in increased advocacy impact.

Writing Great press releases
If you are interested in producing more effective press releases, have a look at, where  the site managers are trying to harness the crowdsourcing potential of the internet in order to get feedback from journalists on the kind of releases they like to get, and are likely to act upon.

Local reporting under threat?

American media scholar Eric Alterman writes about how the ongoing demise of newspapers in the USA is threatening investigative journalism at the local leve, with the danger that the lack of good watchdogs will allow corruption to thrive. Read a summary here or Alterman’s full article here.

In South Africa we’ve never really had strong investigative journalism at the local level (aside from one or two exceptions) and from what I hear, many local papers are increasingly focused on producing poorly disguised advertorial for local businesses and charities. Organisations seeking coverage are being told to get in line behind advertisers, which creates a huge problems for those charities, NGOs and CBOs which don’t have a budget for advertising.

Right now I can think of three implications for those seeking media exposure at the local level. Firstly, expect to see less and less serious content in local papers. Secondly, local organisations will have to start being much more creative when thinking of how to make the news. The photo of the cheque handover is no longer enough. We need to come with stories so complelling, that they simply can’t be ignored. Secondly, organisations need to think about media more broadly. The local paper or ‘knock and drop’ as they are known in South Africa is just one medium among many. Community radio for one, should be getting a lot more emphasis, but organisations also need to start using new media such as SMS and Facebook to reach their audiences.

Obama and new media in Africa

US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Africa has had a lot of media attention. Obama of course is known to have used new media very effectively in his election campaign. He carried that approach through during his Africa visit, using new media such as SMS, Facebook and Twitter, to enable Africans to put questions to him, and to disseminate his speech in Ghana. Crucially though, the new media were used in combination with radio to ensure maximum reach. Ndesanjo Macha wrote about this before Obama’s visit on Global Voices Online.

One of the brains behind the strategy was White African. See his blog post on Obama’s African visit here.

Building Advocacy Campaigns

Oxfam GB has published a very useful book on advocacy called Building National Campaigns: Activists, Alliances and How Change Happens. The book is based on the experience of Oxfam and its partners in campaigning for improved employment standards for workers in five countries. It looks at the various steps or organising, strategising and campaigning for change. There are many useful lessons that can be learned from the juxtaposition of theory with case studies from the five countries. Building National Campaigns can be downloaded free.

There is also a web page with powerpoint slides, photos and other material, and users can also add their own experiences to the content.