When the late Dr. C. Everett Koop issued his first surgeon general’s report about the dangers of smoking in 1982, the media reported it widely. As a result, Dr. Koop realized that publicity and persuasion were effective tools in promoting healthier behavior. In 1984, he launched the Campaign for a Smoke-Free America by 2000 on the 20th anniversary of an earlier Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, issued in 1964. That earlier report resulted in Congress requiring health warning labels on cigarette packages, and the 1970 ban on TV cigarette advertising. The multifaceted anti-smoking campaign led to the percentage of Americans who smoked dropping by 33 percent over the course of Dr. Koop’s tenure.
When Koop positioned smoking as a public health issue, he was doing what media advocacy professionals call “framing.” When he talked about how many people would die of smoking-related cancer, he didn’t just use big numbers. He added, “that’s the equivalent of [X number] of jumbo jets full of passengers crashing in a year.” That’s called “creative epidemiology.” And when he told a story about someone dying from smoking, he related it to a real person in the community where he was speaking, “juxtaposing” his message on a situation that audiences could relate to.
Koop didn’t change the culture of smoking by himself. Many communication professionals contributed to the success of the anti-smoking campaign that led to behavior change and altered social norms nationally. Working together, they mounted one of the most successful media advocacy efforts ever undertaken. It’s now a case study of a methodology that changed health behavior, safety belt use, forest fire prevention and more.
Media advocacy is the strategic use of mass media to advance public policy and address political issues that have important and harmful social consequences. It’s rooted in community action and shifts attention from an individual’s attitudes and behavior to greater awareness and collective change, often relating to the political environment. Grounded in communication theory, it has proven to be an effective means of effecting change for everyone’s benefit.
Another method in behavior change communication is social marketing. It derives from a key question asked in the 1960s: “Why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?” That query led to a new communication objective: the “selling” of socially beneficial ideas and practices that could change behavior to improve all aspects of life, from protecting the environment, to making healthier lifestyle choices, to effecting policy.
The first objective in social marketing and media advocacy is raising awareness about a problem. Persuading people that something must change follows, leading to individuals and communities taking action, whether it’s stopping smoking, joining a green movement, or voting out a bad president.
As we approach the election in the aftermath of Senate impeachment deliberations, and face continuing support from the right for Donald Trump, voter-suppression attempts, and likely cyber interference, Democrats urgently need a strategic, unified media campaign designed to counter Fox News and other sources of misinformation, as well as denial about what’s at stake in November.
Unified media advocacy messages for TV talk show pundits, social media posts, blogs, opinion editorials, news stories and political ads all need to employ the same pithy soundbites, display the same effective visuals and use recognizable symbols and tag lines. They must offer solid facts, creative epidemiology, localized messaging, credible sources and charismatic, trusted spokespeople who put a human face on Trumpian tragedies.
A media advocacy campaign must focus solely on the threats the Trump administration presents. Candidates, whose policies don’t differ much, should stop repeating narrow, superficial one-liners on health policy, free education and the economy. The spotlight must always be on the lies, illegalities and dangers of Donald Trump’s corrupt administration, told in human terms.
“More than 18,000 people are held at any one time by ICE. Over 12,000 of them are traumatized children, many separated from their parents, who will never recover emotionally. That’s equivalent to 60 jumbo jets full of asylum seekers. Here is just one of their stories. ...”
There are myriad issues like these, from polluted waters to food safety to plundered national parks, begging for heightened awareness and voter turnout. Raising that awareness and promoting action falls to Democratic messengers. If Democrats fail to provide strategic messages that hit home, voters won’t know what’s happening under the radar because of the Trump administration, and how it affects them.
Focused media campaigns expose neglected issues. They discredit opponents and humanize compelling facts. They reveal lies. In today’s media environment where brevity is essential, a knockout sound bite — pithy, memorable and repeatable — can have a huge impact. So can one whopper of a photo.
Designing a media advocacy campaign calls for seasoned professionals. Still, “Once you ‘get’ media advocacy, you have to do it or you have to live with the fact that you’re not doing everything you can to make a difference,” as one media advocate put it. Those words couldn’t be more applicable as we face the great urgency of protecting democracy and ensuring a future grounded in the wisdom of our Constitution. Surely Democrats can identify their Dr. Koop in time. The question is, will they?