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The new era of NGO campaigning

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 25 May 2010


I was asked recently to comment on some proposed campaigns by an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO). Here are some general comments on the way that the campaigning context today is now much more complicated than it was.

From “broadcasting” to “narrowcasting”

One change has been the move from “broadcasting” (a small number of, for example, TV stations transmitting to a large number of people) to “narrowcasting” (a large number of TV stations transmitting to a narrow, specific group of people).

I joke in my speeches that if a stranger in a capital city (with a large number of potential radio stations to choose from) were first to tell me about which is their favourite radio station, then I would quickly know a lot about them. For example, a person who listens to a “serious talk” publicly-funded radio station is unlikely to also listen to commercial contemporary music stations.

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Alongside the traditional media we now, of course, also have the social media, for example, Facebook: even more “narrowcasting”.

In summary, I suggest we have “de-massified” society so that it is now impossible to fashion one standard message that will suit - or reach - all audiences at any one time.

Who are the “opinion formers” now?

In the old days, it was usually necessary to reach only a small number of senior people (usually pale, stale, males) to change government policy. These were often called the “opinion formers”: people (usually men) with a disproportionate amount of influence in the media.

Now it is necessary to operate across a variety of media, targeting a variety of people, because in a de-massified society it is no longer possible to always see who has the power to influence others.

“You never know which piece of coal blows the whistle.” You can never be sure what event or form of media coverage could trigger an avalanche.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon is a good example. The video clip of her stunning appearance on Britain’s Got Talent reached Australia a day after it was broadcast in the UK (via Internet users forwarding it on) and by Thursday of the same week it had become the most watched YouTube clip that day in the US. By the following weekend she was in negotiations for a recording contract. She had become a global “hit” in about a week.

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In summary, I suggest an NGO needs to use a variety of media to reach a variety of people with a variety of messages (albeit around a common theme). The “down-market” commercial media and social networks are just as important as the “serious” publicly-funded media outlets.

Rise of epistemic communities

A by-product of the de-massified society is the rise of epistemic communities: where people think the same thoughts and only communicate with each other in that same small group. Despite the alleged internationalising effects of globalisation, we still live in small communities - only now they cross national borders. An Indian legal expert, for example, may have more in common with fellow legal experts in (say) the US or Europe, than with the peasants outside that person’s own home.

The global financial crisis is a good example of this. Those in the finance industry all had the same ideas about how to make money and ignored the warnings of “outside” people, for example, those concerned about society getting into too much debt. Meanwhile the financial regulators (often in the same capital city district a few blocks away) failed to do their own job because they were in their own epistemic community.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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