WHAT IS STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

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By Jen Soriano and Joseph Phelan

In our movements and organizations, most of us understand that communications is important. We hold press conferences, send out press releases, prep our members to be spokespeople, and create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for our organizations. We get it, intuitively, we need to do this work if we want to succeed.

But there’s a problem. When we equate communications tactics — a social media meme, or a cover story in the Sunday paper — with communications strategy, we miss the forest for the trees. Too many of us, at the end of hard-fought campaigns, ask ourselves: We got press coverage, we started an online petition, we created and shared videos on Facebook — so why didn’t we win?

Here at ReFrame, we offer one answer: our movements must move beyond tactical communications and embrace strategic communications in order to win both short-term and long-term victories.

But what exactly do we mean by strategic communications?​We use this definition: 

Strategic communications is consistently and persistently saying the right thing, to the right people, at the right time, to mobilize social power and advance your narrative, so you can accomplish short-term objectives and set up long-term victories. 

Let’s break this down: 

  • Consistently and persistently: Strategic communications is not a one-time activity. It involves thoughtful planning and persistent work to advance consistent frames and narratives on your issue.
  • Saying the right thing: Strategic communications is more than one snappy meme or sound bite. Strategic communications is at least 70 percent effective framing, and then the translation of these frames into stories, messages, and memes. Effective framing advances a bigger story that confronts dominant narratives and appeals to shared values held by your target audiences.   
  • To the right people: Strategic communications never puts the word out to the general public, mostly because the “general public” doesn’t exist. Audiences are groups of real people who listen to and believe very particular types of information sources, and whose values and ideas are shaped by very specific cultural trends. Strategic communications prioritizes a rigorous process of audience research so you can deeply understand what will motivate different audiences to help you win.
  • To mobilize social power and advance your narrative: We can think of society as being organized by three types of power: political, economic, and social. Organizing confronts and builds a combination of these three types of power to create change in our society. As a core strategy within organizing, communications can consolidate, mobilize, and amplify social power to help bring about change in all three arenas.
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  • To accomplish your short-term objectives: These are your campaign goals, which should be clear enough to convey what you want to win right now (ie, the policy, practice, or regulatory change). Short-term goals might be the inclusion of frontline communities in a clean energy bill, shutting down a corporate target, or unionizing a workplace.
  • Set up long-term victories: Strategic communications ensures that frames and messages that help win short-term victories also move you closer to long-term wins. Tactical communications  can accomplish short-term objectives that actually harm our long-term victories. For example, a campaign for deportation relief might use criminalizing language about immigrants. Instead, strategic communications anticipates counternarratives that divide our communities and chooses “high-road” framing that does not give more power to our opposition.   

We offer this definition as a reminder that only strategic communications integrated with deep organizing can truly challenge the narrative terrain in which we operate and mobilize the social power necessary to transform oppressive conditions. Tactical communications, while it might get you some press coverage, will not set us up to make deep change or shift power. 

At ReFrame, we are committed to developing the next generation of strategic communicators for our movements, communicators who understand how to level the narrative playing field and build the social power we need to win.

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