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Progress-program

I was recently asking my NGO communications buddies if they knew of any courses that focused on digital campaigning and community mobilisation. The responses I received were largely along the lines of “I don’t think anything like that exists in Australia”, and “hey you should run a course on that”, so I was starting to get a little disheartened.

That was, until Sarah Stokely suggested I grab a ticket to Progress 2013 – and man I’m glad that I did!

In this post I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights of the last two days, and will no doubt add to it as my brain digests the smorgasbord of ideas, critiques, and strategic thinking I was lucky enough to learn about at this landmark event.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson, social determinants of health guru and expert on the societal effects of inequality framed our thinking as the morning keynote speaker on day one.

His opening slide encouraged us to consider the question, why are we so miserable?

He explained that at a global level (comparing country-to-country), life expectancy is unrelated to economic growth, happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, when we look at the population within countries, health and social problems are more prominent in countries where there is an inequitable distribution of wealth. That is, the larger the income gap, the worse off countries are across a range of areas including: homicide, mental illness, imprisonment, life expectancy, high school drop-outs, maths and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births, social capital, and the prevalence of trust between citizens.

Research shows that people who live in unequal countries actually trust each other less. Only 15-20% of people living in unequal countries feel they can trust each other, compared to more equal countries, where it’s about 60%.

Richard explained that a naive view of inequality only looks at one end of the spectrum that focuses on poverty and income differences. Whereas a more informed view examines the layers of all the subtlety destructive tendencies that humans possess, ie the psycho-social effects.

Fundamentally it’s about a response to social hierarchy and ranking, and whether people feel valued or devalued.

Richard Wilkinson-Public health slide
Research tells us that friendship is a protective factor of health

We then had a look at the “U shape of inequality” from the 1930’s to the present day. It bottomed out in the 70s (thank you feminism) and is now sadly on the rise again. Richard says we’ve lost any vision of what a society that serves us all might look like – a thought for us to keep in mind throughout the conference.

So what might this more equal world look like, and how do we get there?

Richard challenged us to consider what would happen if we extend the idea of democracy into the economic world, and transform big business and corporate control into democratic spaces.

His talk convinced me that in many respects, some of us have reached the end of the benefits of economic growth, and that now we need to think about how to create a better quality of life for everyone, beyond consumerism.

Tim Costello on the narrative of progress

Tim says that the notion of progress needs to be unpicked. He says it can’t be a narrative about material goods, and that we need to understand its limits. The economic rationalism storyline should have already been unpicked, but it still dominates our public debate and policy making.

Australia ranks number one in the world in terms of medium per capita wealth, and number two for wellbeing. We are healthy and wealthy, but are we wise?

The story of “the wealthier I am, the happier I’ll be” doesn’t necessarily work out the way we think it will when we’re ultimately faced with greed, stress,  and fragmentation of communities.

Working out the narrative of progress was one of the challenges Tim put to the conference attendees. This was particularly important given that the NGO sector is largely written out of the progress story.

His take-home points for us:

  • If we can understand our size and our muscle, we can change this place
  • We need to empower people to define what “the good life” means for them
  • There are a lot of people in Australia who should be having a voice, and they need to be connected

Limited news: a future for media in Australia?

Future-of-media

Panelists:

Tim started out talking about how he often sees journos dealing with Twitter followers like they are some kind of pest. He said journos don’t like being publicly held to account, they don’t like being questioned, and they still resist engaging in meaningful dialogic communication.

This got me thinking about how we can break down the barriers to social media use, how we can bridge the digital divide, and how we can empower citizen journalists to deliver quality, yet independent content. I’m yet to come across a better example than the PakVotes project that I came across in Geneva earlier this year.

We then moved on to discussing the Murdoch press, and how we break down the empire and it’s constraints. The general consensus was that monetising free-to-access media is still very difficult, and the publications that have opted for the paywall option are finding it problematic.

Jamila thinks that by 2020 we’ll have online media accounts where we pay very little (eg half a cent) per article read, but that it will take a while for us to get to the point where culturally we’re ready for that to happen on a large-scale.

She flagged that sponsored content is one of the more promising ways that we can monetise online media. I saw a couple of examples of this when Mamamia ran its “Most Clickable Women” awards, and invited female bloggers to engage in the creation of branded or sponsored content.

Digital Campaigning: going well beyond clicktavism

Panelists:

This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending, and it delivered! It was a real honour to hear some of the world’s leading campaigners share their approaches to strategy, implementation and evaluation.

Some tips from the gurus:

  • Technology is just an enabler, it’s how we use it that’s important
  • Seize the moment – when something happens in the real world, leverage it!
  • When people see real action in the world it galvanises support in the online environment
  • By challenging politicians to do something about an issue (by collecting signatures for an online petition, for example), you present not only a big stick, but also a very big carrot
  • It’s important to agitate around issues that “no one cares about”, but recognise this will often require a much more long-term strategy
  • Many people fail because their target audience can’t see how it will lead them to success, and they can’t see their role in the journey
  • When people take action you need to celebrate little victories along the way

Moving beyond the “gender card” – opportunities for the Australian women’s movement.

Y women

Josie Swords of Feminaust, Krista Seddon of the YWCA Victoria, Michelle Deshong of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, myself representing the YWCA of Canberra, and Nina O’Brien of Kindling.

Panelists:

Jane began the discussion by saying that she doesn’t see feminism as a movement. She sees feminism as a way of seeing the world, where women are at the centre of their own lives, rather that at the periphery of someone else’s. Jane noted that one of the things that we (women) consistently deal with is a trivialisation of our thoughts, feelings and desires, and that this needs to change.

Rebecca however, was more interested in talking about how we as a collective can move our agenda forward faster. She said the average GetUp member is a 55 year-old woman, and that one of the reasons women make excellent campaigners is that we’re comfortable with emotion, and the vulnerability that leads to connection.

Michelle challenged the position that Jane presented, because she feels like she has only just had the opportunity to start participating in feminism. She sees her race as the first thing that has prevented her participation, and then her gender, which is why she calls herself an Indigenous Feminist.

Michelle believes that gender equity is a conversation for everyone, and that Indigenous women want to participate in feminism while bringing their men along with them.

There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal women who are participating in the “feminist debate”, because they are more comfortable participating in the “Indigenous conversation”. The overlay of cultural context for Aboriginal peoples is very important, and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to participation in feminist debates.

Jane sees social media as one of the biggest ways that we can move feminism forward faster. The fact that we can have a public conversation without being mediated is unprecedented, and is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

Using the Destroy The Joint campaign as a case study, Jane passed on a few words of wisdom about progressing the feminist agenda:

  • Mock stupidity – it’s the best defence!
  • You have to fight mockery and insults with the same thing!
  • We need to make all progressive movements FUN!
  • Start with a group of people who are like-minded, and want the same outcome. You will have a much better chance of making your campaigns fun and engaging.

Finally, Michelle encouraged us to think about what the world will look like when gender equity exists, and stressed the fact that for us to get there, women’s rights first need to be accepted as human rights.

Me-Ruth

Ruth and I, Better Boards Conference, Melbourne, July 2013

Having been back in the country for less than a week, it was a bit hectic to then head off down to Melbourne for the Better Boards Conference, but I’m so glad I did!

The opening keynote on Saturday was from ThinkPlace’s Dr Nina Terrey on how design thinking can drive innovation. She talked about some of the challenges of our NGO environment, from technology and the demand for businesses to operate online, to our ageing population and the impact of this on our economy, housing, and family structures.

She suggested that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how we (NGOs) connect within one another, and challenged us to consider how we can be cooperative as well as competing.

She then talked about how many young professionals are “mission-driven”, and there’s a trend toward social entrepreneurship in Australia. I certainly notice this in my friendship groups.

Dr Terrey did say though that there are no formulas or models that will simply help us deal with these uncertain times, but that design thinking can help us navigate the “mystery” of our environment.

Innovation-mindset

Leadbeater’s appetite for collaborative innovation

So where to start with design thinking?

Dr Terrey encouraged delegates to think about where some of the biggest challeges are for our organisations, and said to start with looking at the available evidence to help us understand “where we are” at this point in time.

She then said to think about what success looks like. Then how we might get there. Talk to stakeholders to understand what it’s like from their perspective. Do some interviews, spend time with those people, get some information. Then hypothesise…

Design-thinking

Dr Terrey’s “leading on the edge of innovation” preso

One of the other sessions I attended on Saturday was with Philip Mayers, Director, Dakin Mayers Associates, on the role of the nominations committee in recruiting the right board directors.

He started out by saying that one of the fundamental issues in recruiting board directors is that many are recruited through the “old boy/old girl” network. There’s also the “big names” syndrome, and he reckons these people only want to put in minimal effort on a board, and more often than not they’re doing it for the professional development or networking opportunities, rather than having a deep connection with the issues the NGO is dealing with.

He said that some of the biggest challenges for a nominations committee includes:

  • there are no magic bullets with recruitment
  • big names will not help your board strategically guide an organisation
  • recruitment can be a very slow process and it needs to be tackled strategically and thoughtfully

He suggested that the makeup of the nominations committee comprise: 2 senior board members, 2 externals, and the CEO. He stressed the importance of the externals in keeping the internals honest (if they’re the right people).

In terms of what to look for in board members, Philip cited the following qualities: big picture thinker, open-minded, non-biased, approachable, change agent, inclusive, think on their feet, team player, positive manner, ability to delegate, personal integrity, and has skills in board governance.

He talked about the danger of appointing young people to the board (eeek). The reason being that “board members need to have an understanding of governance.”

This comment puzzled me. Don’t young people have the capacity to understand what governance is all about? I sit on a board where there is a minimum requirement that 30% of all board positions are to be held by young women, and I can tell you, they discuss governance A LOT.

In fact, most of the young women on the YWCA of Canberra board pride themselves on their governance nerdiness. More about the Y’s awesome finance and governance workshops here and a good overview of Gen Y in the board room from Chris O’Neill here.

After hearing this comment I asked the other folk on Twitter what they thought about having young people on boards. Here are some of the responses:

todddavies “my experience as a Gen X is that boards can get stayed and dull without a Gen Y or two.”

Rebecca Vassarotti “I know plenty of older people with no governance exper. Everyone has to learn.”
Michel Hogan “because we need diversity on Boards as well as experience and also need to build future generation”

At the end of his presentation I had a chance to ask Philip to elaborate on his earlier comment, and asked him how he got his first gig on a board. He told me that his comment was more to do with “getting young people on boards just for the sake of understanding what young people want”.

He also told us that his first board appointment was when he had just graduated from law school, and he was recruited by his local synagogue – a great learning space for him, I imagine.

One of my favourite sessions of the weekend was run by Sallie Saunders from Building Better Boards, on “Assessing the CEO: the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The key message that came from this session was that a thriving NGO relies on good relationships, in particular the relationship between the CEO and the board.

She said that if you can be the CEO of an NGO, you can pretty much run the country. This was on the one hand a light-hearted comment, but when you look at the qualities, role and responsibilities of a CEO, they aren’t dissimilar to those that are required of a PM.

It’s no surprise then that she considers the CEO to be the most precious asset of an NGO.

Recruiting, developing and assessing the CEO is the only HR job a board has, and Sallie stressed that if directors can’t find reasons to support the CEO, then it’s probably time for them to get off the board.

So what makes it work?

  • keep board development and appraisal on the agenda – it’s a 2-way street
  • set targets for board achievement
  • talk about the difference between strategic and operational matters
  • keep reporting demands to a minimum
  • use the board expertise to add value to the work of the organisation
  • provide support and advice, especially when requested
  • avoid getting involved in staff matters
  • ask the CEO how the board can help (and listen to the answer)
  • the Director’s default position should be to support the CEO. If that’s not the position, then follow grievance procedures.

Later that afternoon there was a lively debate about the question of NGO board remuneration – “to pay or not to pay”?

On the affirmative team:

  • Victor Harcourt, Principle, Russell Kennedy
  • Dean Phelan, CEO, Churches of Christ in QLD
  • Christine Jones, Dispute Resolution Practitioner

Arguing against:

  • Brian Herd, Partner, Carne Reidy Herd Lawyers
  • Alexandra Zammit, CEO, Thomas Holt

The debate itself was pretty entertaining, but the thing I was most impressed with was the live polling and Q&A that was taking place via PigeonHole as the debate progressed.

The idea was to vote on the question of the debate “Should not-for-profit boards be remunerated?” before the discussion took place, as well as afterwards. The MC then compared the results to see whether the speakers had convinced the audience to change their opinions.

In the end there was a shift from something like 65% of delegates thinking that NGO boards should be remunerated, to almost an even split.

I really loved the fact that with PigeonHole delegates were not only able to pose a question to the panel, but also “vote up” other delegates’ questions that they really wanted to hear the answer to.

I think the inclusivity that this kind of tool offers is really valuable, because it means that people who may not feel confident enough to stand up in front of a crowd to ask a question can articulate their idea through a written submission. They can even participate anonymously if they perhaps don’t want the subject of their question to be linked with their organisation or board.

From a strategic communication perspective, I would be really interested to know why the BBC2013 team placed a much greater emphasis on dialogic and digital communication this year as compared to last year (when there was virtually nothing). I’d like to think it had something to do with the feedback I provided!

As Sunday approached I began to reflect on my time volunteering with the YWCA of Canberra. The last 12 months in particular have been a huge period of growth for me.

There are a few guarantees that come with volunteering for an organisation like the Y:

1. You will have the opportunity to work with inspiring, bright, courageous, like-minded women of all ages
2. You will be afforded opportunities to grow your personal and professional experience
3. You will at times, find yourself completely out of your comfort zone thinking “how on earth did I get talked into this?”

But rest assured, you will have the support, encouragement, and expertise of a community of women who want nothing more than to share your success with you.

This is kind of how I felt when Ruth asked me to co-present with her at the Conference this year, but I’m so glad that I accepted her invitation.

Our presentation focused on telling the story of how the board of the YWCA of Canberra developed its 15-year strategic plan. To put the presentation together, Ruth interviewed a bunch of past board members and the Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti. The aim was for them to tell the story from their perspective, with Ruth and I providing the commentary around the implications for the current board.

Typically I felt pretty anxious in the lead up to delivering this presentation, but of course it all ran very smoothly!

We had enough time for a 15 minute Q&A session at the end, and later received some really positive feedback from delegates, including CEOs and directors from a range of NGOs.

If you’re interested in checking out the Better Boards Conference as a professional development opportunity for your board, I highly recommend it.

There is something for everyone, no matter how “new” or “experienced” your board directors are, whether your NGO is service-provision focused, or an advocacy organisation, or how big your budget is.

Syrian-Women

This morning we attended the last Women’s Rights Caucus for the Human Rights Council. The Caucus is co-organised by the World YWCA, World Women’s Summit Foundation (WWSF) and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

The meeting provided an opportunity for members to hear from women who are working in NGOs in Syria and Jordan on what is ‘really’ happening to women and girls in refugee settings in these countries.

This is an important issue for the World YWCA as it has member associations in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt – all of which are affected by and connected to the Syrian conflict.

Nyaradzayi welcomed us to the meeting, she’s always so powerful when she speaks and brings everyone right back to the heart of why we’re here in Geneva.

She reminded us that we need to make sure there’s a connection between what’s being talked about at the HRC and the realities of what women refugees are experiencing.

We know that the HRC will look at adopting the resolution on violence against women, and she challenged us to consider how today’s discussion can inform our broader engagement and advocacy at the HRC.

She also noted that we need an intergenerational focus in our dialogue, from girls and young women as refugees, to women and mothers, and older women.

The first guest speaker was Ms Fardous Albahra, from the Syrian Women’s League (SWL), who reminded us that what’s happening in Syria is not an armed conflict, it’s a revolution to reach democracy and justice.

The regimes have been focusing on different strategies to crack down on the revolution. Many Syrian women from a range of social classes have been raped and imprisoned, but there has been a particular focus on disadvantaged women. The aim of such tactics are to break the human spirit, disempower communities, and ultimately deter people from continuing their participation on the revolution.

She shared with us an insight into politics in Syria. Unsurprisingly, very few women are involved in Syrian politics. Fewer still are part of the women’s movement.

The majority of the women involved in Syrian politics don’t support the SWL’s call for women to have the right to pass their nationality on to their children. It was in fact the democratic secular men in parliament who supported it.

The SWL hopes that the revolution will end soon, and that a secular and democratic government will encourage women’s participation in decision-making, politics and public life.

They called for the international community to oppose human rights violations, and to support their long-term strategy and constitution for women to become a part of political life in Syria.

Next we heard from Ms Sabah Al Hallak, also a representative from the SWL who provided a brief overview of how the conflict in Syria began, and reminded us that women are disproportionately affected during times of conflict.

She said that women in Syria are calling for peace, and the SWL is doing whatever it can to seek women’s involvement in the political process, and demand women’s rights in the next government’s agenda.

She noted that the media has played a big role in enforcing negative framing of women, and in exaggerating claims about violations towards women.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to chat to her about this (she was whisked off to her next speaking engagement), but I presume that the government and media are closely aligned and work together to perpetuate a sense of fear among Syrian people.

Ms Dana Abu Sham, from the Arab Women Organisation of Jordan (AWOJ) reminded us that domestic violence is seen as a part of some Syrian cultures, particularly rural areas, and that this was occurring prior to the revolution.

She spoke of the AWOJ’s work outside of refugee camps, and the current challenges around data collection, and so was reluctant to make concrete statements about which issues were most impacting on women.

She shared a very different perspective on the way that men, particularly Arab men view women from Syria, and women from Jordan.

“Syrian women have a reputation of being fair-skinned, very beautiful, knowing how to please men (both physically and emotionally), and being sweet-talkers.

Jordanian women on the other hand are not as fair-skinned, they are more aggressive and they will stand up to a man”, she said.

It’s not uncommon for wealthy Arab men to fly into Syria or Jordan for one week, pay a small dowry to the girl’s impoverished family, marry her, and after a week of pleasure leave her forever – with nothing.

When child brides get married and do not register their marriages in host communities, then it is considered illegal in that country. Moreover if she were to have a baby, then automatically that child is considered illegitimate. The ramifications on her rights and the rights of the child are overwhelming.

So what can women’s organisations in Geneva do? We were urged to continue our work on women’s rights especially in refugee settings, protecting women from all forms of violence, particularly in conflict situations, and to advocate for women to be involved in peace negotiations.

UN HRC - main room

On Wednesday we were back in the main room (the one with the funky ceiling) for the Annual Day of Discussion on Women’s Rights – great to see a whole day dedicated to this subject at the Human Rights Council (HRC).

It was an important day for the World YWCA and the Y movement, because we had prepared a statement that focused on child, early and forced marriages that Jenna read out to the assembly in the afternoon.

There’s no guarantee for NGOs as to whether they’ll actually have an opportunity to speak, because it all depends on what states have to say (they are given priority) and how much time remains after they have all spoken.

Here’s a video we made in the lunch break that explains what the statement is all about:

The first panel discussion of the morning focused on reflecting on efforts to eliminate violence against women, from the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action to the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

The opening statement  was made by Ms Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the discussion moderated by Ms Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Panellists included:

  • Ms Patricia Schulz, member of the CEDAW Committee
  • Ms Florence Butegwa, Representative to Ethiopia (OIC), and Representative to the African Union and UNECA, UN Women
  • Dr Fatma Khafagy, Ombudsperson of Gender Equality, Egypt
  • Ms. Simone Cusack, Senior Policy and Research Officer, Australian Human Rights Commission; Author and Expert on Gender Stereotyping; and
  • Juan Carlos Areán, Member of the Secretary-General’s Network of Men Leaders senior program director at the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF)

Ms Pillay provided an overview of the recent history of women’s human rights, highlighting CEDAW and the Vienna Declaration as milestones in reframing the debate on women’s human rights.

Ms Schulz spoke on behalf of the CEDAW committee and how it worked to frame violence against women as a form of discrimination. She also noted the importance of the contribution that NGOs make on informing this issue, and that the Committee has institutionalised the participation of NGOs and civil society in its work.

She said the influence of the Committee is growing despite the fact that some states don’t implement its recommendations. However, she also acknowledged that
violence against women continues all over the world and that dealing with it is not just the job of the Committee alone.

While the Committee has no legal power to enforce its recommendations and many states are slow and irregular in their reporting, the CEDAW convention provides a holistic legal framework to be able to effectively tackle this issue in an international setting like the HRC.

Ms Butegwa then shared some positive trends regarding violence against women, noting that 34 African countries now have legislation to eliminate violence against women. She thanked the participation of the CEDAW committee and supportive states in making this a reality.

We then heard from states on the issue, what their country had done to address the issue, and their suggestions for next steps to eliminate gender discrimination and violence against women. States who were particularly strong in their positions included: Brazil, Estonia, Canada, Lithuania, Chile, South Africa, Norway, USA, and Greece, as well as the European Union.

I noticed a common theme emerging, that was first noted by Ms Pillay in her opening address, and that is that implementation of resolutions is still a big problem.

Sierra Leone suggested that we need detailed action plans that are country-specific, include targeted strategies for different population groups, and media strategies and effective message dissemination for public education and awareness-raising campaigns.

The second session of the day focused on strengthening the work of the HRC and other inter-governmental bodies and processes in the area of violence against women.

Ms Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights provided the opening statement, and the discussion was moderated by Ms Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Panellists included:

  • Ms Zainab Bangura, SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict
  • Mr Sandeep Chawla, Deputy Executive Director, UNODC
  • Ms Patience Stephens, Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division, UN Women
  • Prof Marilou McPhedran, Institute for International Women’s Rights at The University of Winnipeg Global College, Canada

Ms Pansieri made some practical recommendations for steps that could be taken to address violence against women in the work of the HRC at state level:

  • integrating violence against women in country-specific sessions and resolutions
  • making specific reference to violence against women in mandates of enquiry
  • introducing mandates to make special mention of violence against women during country missions
  • paying attention to other forms of discrimination that impact on violence against women, as it leads to a greater risk to exposure to gender-based violence
  • avoiding duplication of work and recommendations
  • developing strategies to implement the recommendations of the resolution on violence against women

Ms Bangura’s address brought us all back down to earth by sharing horrific stories from women and girls in her country, particularly relating to sexual violence and rape of babies, girls, and young women. The statistics are truly sickening.

She talked about how when someone in her country is raped, it’s commonplace for the family of the victim to disown them, or worse, kill them because of the apparent shame that it brings to the family.

She strongly pointed out that the shame and the stigma should be that of the perpetrators, not of the victim. And that it’s up to everyone to condemn the scourge of violence against women, something she calls history’s greatest silence.

She said that includes teachers, journalists, political and religious leaders, those involved in the judicial system, health professionals, and social commentators, can all make a difference in changing attitudes towards these crimes. Not to mention folk at the international level including treaty bodies, specil rapporteurs, and experts that are engaged in HRC processes.

States then took to the floor to reiterate the importance of the issue, it’s complexities within their cultural context, and the impact it has on their states socially, politically, and economically. They also spoke about the work that their governments are doing at a national level in prevention, treatment, persecution of perpetrators, and ongoing support to victims of violence.

I’ve been here long enough now to read the subtext of these statements, to understand the intentions and implications of certain language that states use, and the alliances that are formed to either block or promote the passage of UN resolutions and other actions.

For example, states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have all taken a position to reject suggestions to include language from agreed conclusions from CSW57 in the draft resolution on the elimination of violence against women that is being lead by Canada. The language they most object to is about women’s right to have an abortion, and also protecting the human rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and intersex people.

It’s clear that behind-the-scenes collaboration takes place so they can support eachother’s positions in consultations and events where official documents are being drafted and discussed.

On the flipside there’s Norway and the group of Nordic countries, who make a point of using specific language (rather than implicit) in their statements and contributions to ensure that their governments can’t sit on their hands when it comes to championing women’s human rights.

Then there’s a group who sit on the fence, or make statements that appear to support the positions of states like Canada and Norway, but BEWARE!  You have to “read the fine print” in order to not be mislead.

On the surface they seem supportive, but they often conclude their seemingly supportive statements with disclaimers that nullify the essential content of documents like the resolution on violence against women.

A classic example would be a line like “we support the elimination of all forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, and acknowledge women’s right to access health services, in the cultural and religious context of the state.” Ie, if a religious or political leader says that a woman should be imprisoned for seeking an abortion because she was raped and fell pregnant, then so be it.

So why do we spend days and sometimes weeks negotiating over one or two words? Wouldn’t it just be easier to make generalised statements so that everyone agrees and gets on with the job?

When language is diluted it allows states to abrogate their responsibilities to take meaningful action on these issues, and to ignore critical areas that need urgent attention in relation to women’s human rights.

That’s why it was important for the World YWCA to make the oral statement. It sends a strong message to the HRC and states that we know what work needs to be done, and we’ll keep pushing for meaningful action until we see all women and girls enjoying their human rights.

Jenna-in-action

Jenna in action, making the oral statement on behalf of the World YWCA.

Since starting my Masters in Strategic Communication I’ve often been asked “so…what is strategic communication?”. Luckily one of my first assignments was to answer that very question. Read on communication nerds, and feel free to tell me what you think!

Introduction

Strategic communication is a broad and ambiguous term, often used to describe a range of professional disciplines including management, marketing, public relations, technical communication, advertising, and media relations. The purposeful nature of strategic communication is critical, and can include activities such as public diplomacy, public health promotions, the support of social causes, charities and activist organisations, political campaigning, the sale of products, and the promotion of public policy views (Hallahan, Holtzhausen, van Ruler, Vercic & Sriramesh, 2007). As divergent as the names and purposes of these activities are, their commonality lies in the intent to influence individuals, groups, organisations or even whole societies (Botan, 1997).

Perhaps the most successful strategic communication endeavours not only aim to communicate in order to influence a target public or to advance an organisation’s mission, but encompass the following critical attributes: rational debate to achieve understanding; dialogic communication; and authenticity. This essay will define strategic communication by exploring these key attributes in the context of critical communication theory, and thereby propose a framework for ethical and successful strategic communication in the contemporary communication environment.

Rational debate and achieving understanding

Jurgen Habermas’ concept of a public sphere should be used as a benchmark by strategic communication practitioners to facilitate rational debate and achieve understanding among target publics. The public sphere refers to the discursive processes in a network of persons, institutionalised associations and organisations which represent a civilised way of disagreeing openly about essential matters of common concern. While discourses are very rarely conclusive, they constitute a complex source of social power, trust and legitimacy for individuals and organisations both in private and government settings (Jensen, 2002).

According to Habermas, a public sphere is formed when citizens communicate, either face to face or through letters, journals, and newspapers or other mass media in order to express their opinions about matters of general interest, and to subject these opinions to rational discussion (Edgar, 2005). For Habermas, the success of the public sphere is dependent upon rational and critical discourse where all participants are able to equally engage, and achieving audience understanding is the ultimate goal. It is important to make a clear distinction between achieving understanding and achieving consensus. Habermas’ public sphere is less concerned with all parties reaching an agreement, or achieving a particular goal, and focuses more on providing people with a forum in which they can share and exchange knowledge and ideas freely and equally. For Habermas, reaching understanding is the inherent telos of human speech (Habermas, 1987).

The concept of the public sphere has been widely criticised as utopian and unachievable when applied in practice. However, it is important that contemporary communication practitioners have an ethical basis on which to lay the foundations of their work, and an ideal to strive for. It can be argued that the concepts and preconditions of the public sphere are still relevant and should be further developed to reflect on public relations as a profession in its societal context (Jensen, 2002). Indeed, there are many successful contemporary examples of the public sphere in practice.

New technologies and digital communication platforms demonstrate ways in which various publics including lay people and experts can collaborate and communicate openly to achieve understanding. For example, the online news forum The Conversation is an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the university and research sector. It aims to provide a space in which individuals and organisations can engage in public debate and discussion across a diverse range of topical issues of concern. One of the key objectives of The Conversation is to make evidence-based content accessible and useful to both experts and lay publics by combining “academic rigour with journalistic flair” (The Conversation, 2012). In many ways, The Conversation exemplifies a contemporary working public sphere, as it embodies Habermasian values and attributes and puts them into practice. For example, its Charter sets out that it will:

  • Give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research;
  • Unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems;
  • Create an open site for people around the world to share best practices and collaborate on developing smart, sustainable solutions;
  • Provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum, free of commercial or political bias;
  • Ensure the site’s integrity by only obtaining non-partisan sponsorship from education, government and private partners. Any advertising will be relevant and non-obtrusive;
  • Ensure quality, diverse and intelligible content reaches the widest possible audience by employing experienced editors to curate the site;
  • Support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish; and
  • Work with academic, business and government partners and an advisory board to ensure we are operating for the public good.

Digital platforms like The Conversation are arguably setting a new standard for ethical journalism, news reporting and more broadly strategic communication, by challenging traditional content creation and dissemination processes, and deliberately refuting accepted views of the industry as untrustworthy, sensationalist, and biased.

Dialogic communication and the rise of social media

Monologic communication can be described as “seeking to command, coerce, manipulate, conquer, dazzle, deceive or exploit. Choices are narrowed, consequences are obscured, and focus is on the communicator’s message, not on the audience’s real needs. The core values, goals, and policies espoused by the communicator are impervious to influence exerted by receivers, and audience feedback is used only to further the communicator’s purpose” (Johannesen, 1996). While monologic communication models have been a dominant feature of traditional strategic communication dating back to ancient times, with the widespread availability of online communication platforms there has been a distinct shift to a more dialogic approach.

Dialogic communication is characterised by a continuous two-way flow of information and feedback where the distinction between sender and receiver is somewhat indistinct. Indeed, the communication delivered by individuals and organisations using a dialogic communication approach is characterised by authenticity, inclusion, confirmation, presentness, a spirit of mutual equality, and a supportive climate (Johannesen, 1996). It has become clear that in the contemporary communication environment organisations can no longer simply ‘deliver’ key messages to disengaged and passive publics. Successful strategic communication is about meaningful engagement and building relationships with key audiences.

In the areas of welfare, health, crime, employment, education and the environment, achieving significant progress requires the active involvement and cooperation of citizens (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007). Social media can be defined as a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Social media platforms are an increasingly popular way for strategic communicators to build networks of collaborators, grow active and engaged communities, and foster meaningful dialogue to achieve their aims and objectives (Greenberg & MacAulay, 2009). Successful social media strategies typically encompass the following criteria:

  1. Connectedness: regularly engaging in two-way conversations with target audiences (dialogic paradigm).
  2. Meaningful participation: target audiences are actively participating in opportunities made available to them through social media outreach.
  3. Uptake of information: information and key messages are being accessed and adopted by target audiences both on and offline.

Arguably one of the strongest examples of a successful social media strategy in a political communication context is the 2007 Barack Obama campaign (the Campaign), with its mission, Involvement through Empowerment. The Campaign did not simply consist of a series of social media profiles and well-honed key messages with the expectation that people would engage and get on board. Rather, the Campaign utilised social media platforms as vehicles to connect with audiences to listen to their concerns, generate open discussion and debate, offer solutions to their problems, and mobilise and empower them to take action both on and offline.

In terms of the social media metrics, the Campaign reached 5 million supporters across 15 social networks over the course of campaign season. By November 2008, the Campaign had approximately 3 million Facebook supporters, 115,000 Twitter followers, and 50 million viewers of its YouTube channel (The Dragonfly Effect, 2012). Offline, over 200,000 events were planned, more than 35,000 volunteer groups were created, and over 70,000 people raised $30 million.

While the reach of the Campaign is impressive, what is more interesting is the way that, through social media interactions, everyday people were put to work by sharing content, spreading the Campaign’s messages, and of course raising funds; the audience became a part of the campaign. Without adopting a dialogic communication paradigm and harnessing the capabilities of social media, this outcome wouldn’t have been achieved.

Truth versus authenticity

In the contemporary communication environment, seeking out pure and unbiased information or indeed a single truth is arguably an impossible mission. From a Foucauldian perspective, one would argue that people’s attachment to truth is central to the power/knowledge relationship, and that particular knowledges gain the status of truths by virtue of their relationship to power (Motion & Leitch, 2007). However, in order for information to be shared, it needs to be crafted, packaged, pitched, and delivered by one or more messaging platforms. If there was a mechanism by which an independent individual could perform these tasks in isolation from the message sender, nonetheless their education, upbringing, and social values would influence the way that the communication is handled. It is therefore more important to focus on the authenticity of information and its source, rather than how pure or true the information actually is.

Since the development of digital communication and the 24-hour news cycle, audiences are relentlessly bombarded with a myriad of communication messages. The result is audiences that are hugely accessible to communication professionals, and are necessarily more discerning when it comes to the products they purchase, the brands they align themselves with, and the messages they choose to take on board. The need to convey authenticity and transparency in communication is more important now than ever before. Organisational actions can be communicated or exposed to global audiences within a matter of seconds, better educated publics process information in greater quantities, and an increase in online activist and consumer groups has decreased the probability that a problematic organisational action will slip under the radar (Botan, 1997).

If organisations strategically share who they are, their values, their knowledge, and importantly, their mistakes, they will appear more visible, genuine, and available when engaging with publics and if future public relations and communication opportunities arise. If organisations mask their identities, they risk not only missing out on public profiling opportunities, but also compromising their credibility as a leader or trusted source in their field and with their audiences.

An example of the importance of authenticity in strategic communication is illustrated in the public battle between Shell and Greenpeace in the 1990s. Shell needed to dispose of its 14,500 tonne ‘Brent Spar’ oil platform, located in the North Sea, and was given permission to do so by the UK government. As part of Green Peace’s long-standing campaigning against sea disposal of oil rigs, it swiftly took action, and on 30 April 1995 a number of activists had physically occupied the rig, and remained there for three weeks. People watched as a ‘David and Goliath’-style public battle ensued between the world’s then largest oil company, the UK Government, and Greenpeace and its supporters (Bakir, 2005).

Over the following weeks, public and political pressure mounted as Greenpeace strategically utilised mass media outlets, particularly television news and documentary-style video clips to inspire protests across Northern Europe. Greenpeace’s communication strategy adopted a dialogic communication paradigm, and relied heavily on media outlets and their target publics to share their video footage of action around the rig, and to question the messages delivered by Shell. ‘It was just as important to get images of the rig – the support ships hosing down the activists trying to get on board – as it was to do the action itself,’ (Blair Palese, Greenpeace International, BBC1 9.00 pm News, 21 June 1995).

One of the key criticisms of Shell was its inability to respond to these images and Greenpeace’s claims in an authentic and timely manner, which caused the public to grow increasingly sceptical about its team of expert scientists and their technical explanations. Shell was also somewhat hamstrung by its lengthy internal communication approval processes and policies, and couldn’t compete with Greenpeace’s authentic real-time communication tactics.

By week seven of Greenpeace’s campaigning, Shell-Austria, Shell-Germany and Shell-Netherlands announced that they opposed to the deep-sea disposal of the rig. On 20 June 1995, Shell-UK announced the abandonment of its plans to dispose of Brent Spar at sea. Following Shell’s decision to pursue only on-shore disposal options, as favoured by Greenpeace and its supporters, the Brent Spar was given temporary moorings in a Norwegian fjord. In January 1998 Shell announced its decision to re-use much of the main structure in the construction of new harbour facilities near Stavanger, Norway.

This case study demonstrates that in the contemporary communication environment, authenticity is more influential than traditional indicators of power such as economic power, expert knowledge, or even political power in gaining the trust and support of target audiences. Further, the case study illustrates the need for organisations to respond swiftly and honestly to public concerns, and to take advantage of opportunities afforded to organisations by new digital technologies.

Conclusion

Strategic communication is about more than merely planning for the long term, implementing a set of tactics, and being aware of the ever changing external communication environment. It’s about fostering rational debates to achieve understanding among publics; working within a dialogic communication paradigm to build relationships; and recognising the importance of maintaining authenticity in organisational branding and messaging.

In the contemporary communication setting where digital communication platforms are widely available, organisations and individuals are constantly under scrutiny and any weakness can be very rapidly and very publicly unearthed. The field of strategic communication would arguably attract less criticism and scepticism if practitioners adopted an underlying principle of authenticity, and worked towards the Habermasian concept of a public sphere.

References

Australian Public Service Commission. (2007). Changing behavior: A Public Policy Perspective. Retrieved from http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications07/changingbehaviour.pdf

Bakir, V. (2005). Greenpeace v. Shell: media exploitation and the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF). Journal of Risk Research 8 (7–8), 679–691.

Botan, C. (1997). Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations. Journal of Business Communication 34(2): 188-202.

The Conversation. (2012). Retrieved from http://theconversation.edu.au/

The Dragonfly Effect (2012). Retrieved from http://www.dragonflyeffect.com/blog/dragonfly-in-action/case-studies/the-obama-campaign/

Edgar, A. (2005). The Philosophy of Habermas. Chesham, UK: Acumen.

Greenberg, J., MacAulay, M. (2009). NPO 2.0? Exploring the Web Presence of Environmental Nonprofit Organizations in Canada. Global Media Journal: Canadian Edition 2(1): 63-88.

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action: Vol. 2. Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason [Die Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Zur kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft]. Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1981).

Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., van Ruler, B., Vercic, D., Sriramesh, K. (2007): Defining Strategic Communication. International Journal of Strategic Comunication, 1:1. 3-35.

Jensen, I. (2002). Public relations and emerging functions of the public sphere: An analytical framework. Journal of Communication Management, 6(2), 133-147.

Johannesen, R. L. (1996). Ethics in human communication (4th ed.). Prospect heights IL: Waveland Press.

Kaplan, Andreas M., Haenlein, Michael. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons 53(1): 59–68.

Motion, J., Leitch, S. (2007). A toolbox for public relations: The oeuvre of Michael Foucault. Public Relations Review, 33(3), 2007, 263-268.

Rutherford, P. (2000) Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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