10 Principles for Effective Advocacy Campaigns

Free-Range Thinking | October 2000

In 1985, Herb Chao Gunther created a code of conduct for progressive activists. Fifteen years later, the guiding force behind Public Media Center revisits his original “Ten Principles,” and he still likes what he sees.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the wisdom of Herb Chao Gunther is rarely far from my mind. Tacked up to the bulletin board in my office is a yellowing page torn from an old edition ofNew Voices, a publication of The Wilderness Society. The page lists Gunther’s “Ten Principles for Effective Advocacy Campaigns,” guidelines drawn from his front-line experience at the Public Media Center in San Francisco. For more than 25 years, from his first days at PMC as a copywriter to his current role as President & CEO, Gunther has helped create some of the most effective media campaigns for environmental protection, human rights, and public health.

Gunther first began distilling his experience into a codified set of principles in 1985, partly to help PMC’s clients understand his philosophy, but also to teach other public interest groups how to communicate more effectively. Over time the words have changed – the New Voicespiece was one of many drafts – but the principles themselves have remained the same. In a recent telephone interview, I asked Gunther if his list required updating today, especially as the Internet is “changing everything” and the marketplace of ideas is choked with data smog. His answer, in a word (although you’ll rarely get a one-word answer from Herb Chao Gunther): no.

1. Communicate values.
“Americans need to hear there are certain things that are good or bad for the country,” Gunther asserts. “Absent that kind of moral clarity, people aren’t going to pay attention to the details.” The current Presidential campaign is a classic example of this principle in action. “When Gore gets up, he speaks almost nothing but values. He presents himself as a good man, a man who follows his conscience.”

2. American political discourse is fundamentally oppositional. 
People are more comfortable being against something than for it. Again, Gunther draws his most convincing examples from politics. Negative ratings for candidates didn’t exist 16 years ago. Today these ratings are routinely gathered by pollsters and closely scrutinized by the media. Gunther maintains that President Clinton’s re-election in 1996 was powered more by votes against Bob Dole than for the incumbent, and he predicts a similar demise for the GOP this year due to growing anti-Bush sentiment.

3. The undecided in the middle determine the outcome of a given fight.
PMC’s work with the National Abortion Rights Action League reminds Gunther that principle #3 is alive and well today. When an issue polarizes as strongly as abortion, public interest groups should not waste time and resources trying to convert true believers at either end of the ideological spectrum. As Gunther told Planned Parenthood while planning a recent campaign, “Our fight is for the muddled middle.”

4. Americans want to be on the winning side. Based on this inclination, “undecideds” frequently choose the side that appears stronger.
“Americans don’t like to feel stupid, and going for the winner is a reflection that their self-esteem constantly has to be stroked and renewed.” As evidence, Gunther points to post-election polls which consistently show more voters claiming to have voted for the winner (as many as 15%, in fact ) than actually pulled the lever.

5. Make enemies, not friends. Identify the opposition and attack their motives.
“A fundamental tenet of democracy is accountability,” Gunther emphatically states, adding “Naming names is all about accountability.” Gunther proudly points to PMC’s campaign against the proposed theme park, “Disney’s America,” that featured an advertisement portraying CEO Michael Eisner as “The Man Who Would Change History.” Gunther believes the vilification of Eisner was critical in forcing Disney to cancel plans for the park, and he encourages public interest groups to employ a similar strategy. “CEO’s are confined to a statesman like role. This limits their ability to fire back. Don’t be afraid to attack!”

6. American mass culture is fundamentally alienating and disempowering.
“Most people don’t think they belong to this country in one way or another,” says Gunther. Several factors stoke these feelings of alienation: racial and ethnic divisiveness, class conflict, the sheer size of the country, and technology that leaps ahead faster than our wisdom to use it. Consequently, Gunther believes it’s more important than ever for public interest groups to educate, empower, and motivate their target audiences as part of their campaigns.

7. Target a few key audiences and strategize for social diffusion through opinion leaders, not by reaching the mass audience. 
“When surveys say the majority of Americans feel they don’t count, why spend so much of your resources trying to talk to them?” Gunther firmly believes it’s better to have somebody else talk to them directly, so PMC’s ads are designed to find and educate that select group who will deliver the message for you. And exactly how many people are we talking about? “Nine times out of ten, you need to convince about a thousand people.”

8. Responsible extremism sets the agenda.
“What Rosa Parks did was a responsible extremist act in her time. Aside from the anarchists, what happened in Seattle around WTO was responsible extremism.” Given this definition, Gunther maintains principle #8 is still valid, even if it relies on the work of controversial or so-called “fringe” groups. “The reason that Sierra Club is negotiating a settlement with a lumber company is because Earth First was doing what they do.”

9. Social consensus isn’t permanent and must continually be asserted and defended.
“I have to characterize citizenship in this country as a state of somnambulance.” Given a sleep-walking populace, Gunther warns public interest groups that the passage of a law or election of a candidate is not the end of the fight. David Brower, founder of Earth Island Institute, once said, “There are no victories in the environmental movement, only stays of execution.” Principle #9 extends this maxim to all public interest issues.

10. Strategic diversity is essential to the success of social movements.
“Biological diversity is nature’s strategy for survival,” Gunther says, “and we have to recognize the message for our movement.” When you put out a single message, he warns, you make it very easy for the other side to figure out how to respond and how to take you out. You also fail to recognize that you probably have to move several constituencies at once (e.g., the public, business leaders, politicians), and each constituency deserves its own highly-targeted message.

To learn more about Public Media Center, visit their website, www.publicmediacenter.org.


 free-range follow-up

On “Compassion Fatigue”

When I speak to public interest groups and foundations around the country, I remind them that, regardless of their programmatic focus, they share a similar (and growing) problem: compassion fatigue. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, I offer this eloquent definition from the Seattle Times:

“The images rush into our lives: a terrified Bosnian orphan behind a bullet-riddled bus window, a desperate Somalian mother and her stick-thin starving child. Tragedies everywhere, filling the newspaper pages and television screens. Our hearts and minds struggle like a frantic war-zone doctor in a crowded medical tent as the cries for help inundate us. Which hands reaching out for us shall we take, and which shall we pass by? Should we, who can afford double lattes.help everyone? Or should we – personally and nationally – perform ethical triage, deciding which victims of human suffering we will help, which we will ignore. Or should we just give in to the impulse to succumb to ‘compassion fatigue’ and pull the all-cotton premium goosedown covers over our heads?”

“Our Struggle with Our Hearts,” Carol Ostrom, August 10, 1992

Communicating with your target audience is not simply a matter of shining a media spotlight on information they should know – not when so many have already pulled the covers over their heads. You have to do more, and exactly what this entails will be the subject of next month’s issue.