22 Media Advocacy: A Strategy for Helping Communities Change Policy
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22 Media Advocacy A Strategy for Helping Communities Change Policy LORI DORFMAN PRISCILLA GONZALEZ 407 The primary tool available to communities for influencing social conditions and creating healthy environments is policy. Policies define the structures and set the rules by which we live (see chapter 20). If public health practitioners and community organizers are going to improve social conditions and physical environments in lasting and meaningful ways, they must be involved in policy development and policy advocacy. And being successful in policy advocacy means paying attention to the news. The reach of the media is intoxicating. In our society, the news media largely determine what issues we collectively think about, how we think about them, and what kinds of alternatives are considered viable. The public and policymakers do not consider issues seriously unless they are visible, and they are not visible unless the media have brought them to light. Nonprofit organizations, health departments, and community activists often are unhappy with how their issues are presented in the news. Media advocacy addresses this problem. It is an approach to health communication that differs significantly from traditional mass communication approaches (Wallack et al. 1999). Despite the media’s enormous reach and potential as a tool for change, public health professionals rarely use mass media to its full advantage. Rather, they tend to use it in its least effective capacity: to convey personal health information to consumers. By contrast, media advocacy harnesses the power of the news to mobilize advocates and apply pressure for policy change. Media advocacy helps people understand the importance and reach of news coverage, the need to participate actively in shaping such coverage, and the methods for doing so effectively. First Comes Strategy Media advocacy relies on four layers of strategy. The first is the overall strategy, which includes the policy goal and what it will take to enact it. Based on that, advocates develop their media strategy and their message strategy—what they want to say, who will say it, and to whom. After the first three layers of strategy are in place, advocates can determine the best way to attract the attention of journalists and other media contacts—the access strategy. Develop an Overall Strategy Getting media attention should never be an advocate’s first consideration. Before talking to reporters or even determining what to say, public health advocates must know what they want to change in concrete terms, the more specific the better (Dorfman et al. 2005; Themba 1999). Further, advocates need to know how to create the change, for example, through legislation, a vote, administrative petition, or some other process (Wallack 1999; Wallack et al. 1993; Chapman 2001). The overall strategy will determine how to approach the problem, and thus also how to approach the media. Media advocates use these questions to develop their overall strategy: 1. What is the problem or issue? How the problem is defined will determine the solution. 2. What is a solution or ameliorative policy? Solutions are usually incremental, since it is impossible to be comprehensive and strategic at the same time, and for most groups, resources are too limited to be comprehensive. 3. Who has the power to make the necessary change? When the goal is the policy, the target is not the person with the problem. Instead, the target is the person or body that can enact the policy (e.g., legislature, city council, business, school board, principal, mayor, building manager, CEO). 4. Who must be mobilized to apply the necessary pressure? Who cares about this issue, and whom will the target listen to? These are the secondary targets. The “general public” is not specific enough to be a target audience; media advocacy is not about raising awareness among the general public, but about sparking action among particular power holders. 5. What do the targets need to hear? What they need to hear, and from whom they need to hear it, are the two key questions that form the foundation for a message strategy (Dorfman et al. 2005). The evolution of tobacco control illustrates how the answers to these questions will shape the strategy. In the 1950s and 1960s, the problem was defined as smoking, so the solution was to warn smokers about the danger and help them quit; that usually led to noncontroversial education programs but could include policies like instituting reimbursement for cessation programs in health insurance . The target was the smoker, and education campaigns would aim to reach them directly or indirectly through their families...

Subject Headings

  • Health promotion.
  • Community health services -- Citizen participation.
  • Community organization.
  • Community development.
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