Media campaigns can shape or shift mainstream narratives and change policies. Neha Madhok from Democracy in Colour and Aliya Ahmad from the Economic Media Centre presented on rapid response media campaigning at the FWD + Organise 2021 Conference held by Australia Progress. They outlined their response to the racist and heavy-handed over policing of communities of colour and working-class communities in southwest Sydney at the start of the Delta outbreak in 2021. The rapid response media campaign combined with digital tactics shifted the narrative within hours and has continued to shape the discourse.
At the start of the Covid-19 Delta outbreak a number of people tested positive in south-western Sydney. The NSW government responded with increased policing and rhetoric blaming people in the affected areas for not complying with public health orders. The initial media coverage framed the response as ‘Police activity bolstered across problematic Sydney regions in desperate bid to shut down Delta transmission‘. Within hours a follow up media article used significantly different framing: ‘Covid crackdown in Sydney’s southwest labelled racist amid major police operation‘.
Rapid response media work coupled with organising in the affected communities made a major difference in the public debate and media coverage.
Here are some of the tips Neha and Aliya shared on how to run media campaigns that reshape mainstream narratives and change policies.
- Be fast and first. Get ahead of other voices.
- Have a pre-existing strategy for responding to damaging narratives (e.g. racial scapegoating).
- Always do a media release – It can be very basic, for example, just letting them know key messages and spokespeople that are available.
- Don’t spend more than 30-45 minutes on a media release. Wordsmithing means you lose the urgency.
- After the initial media release keep momentum by engaging the base in online and other actions.
- Pick your moment and don’t try to respond to everything.
- Set the story in your frame. Shifting the narrative made it easier for people of colour to speak publicly.
- Conflict: Use strong rhetoric and don’t be afraid to clash with other players. This appeals to the media who want a story.
- Have one key message. Make it clear, urgent and easy for journalists to understand.
- Go for clarity of message rather than covering all of the nuance – eg saying directly ‘this is racist’ rather than talking through all the complexity.
- Have narrative shifting as a key goal due to the damage done by oppressive narratives.
Work with Community Spokespeople
- Spokespeople should come from the community affected.
- Amplifying the voices of people from an area adds legitimacy. In this case a number of people connected to Democracy in Colour and the Economic Media Centre had grown up in western Sydney or had community connections there.
- Community radio is good media training practice for more mainstream radio stations.
- Put newer spokespeople in front of sympathetic media outlets first.
- Include messaging training in your community organising training so when opportunities emerge people are ready to speak.
About the Speakers
- Aliya Ahmad (Economic Media Centre)
Aliya (she/her) is the Associate Director at the Economic Media Centre, an organisation that trains and pitches diverse spokespeople with lived experience of economic issues into the mainstream media to help create more inclusive policies. She is a media campaigner with deep experience shifting media narratives on issues of economic and racial inequality. Previously the Senior Media Adviser at the Victorian peak body for homelessness, Aliya ran and coordinated media for the Make Social Housing Work campaign that helped deliver the largest social housing investment in Victoria in decades. As Communications Director for Democracy in Colour, Aliya ran rapid response media campaigns that got Sam Newman and Pauline Hanson off the air and helped to shift racist narratives that scapegoated migrant and working class communities throughout the pandemic. She sits on the board of Switchboard Victoria and is part of the National Media Engagement Advisory Group for Media Making Change at OurWatch.
- Neha Madhok (Democracy in Colour)
Neha (she/her) has over a decade of experience in Australian political campaigning and is driven by the power of grassroots organising to win tangible outcomes for social justice. Currently, Neha is a National Director at Democracy in Colour, a racial justice organisation led by and for people of colour. Previously she was a Senior Campaigner at 350.org Australia. Neha has worked on the Yes campaign for Marriage Equality, and she was a Digital Campaigner in the Australian union movement.
- Rapid Response Worksheet: A framework for advancing narrative strategy in the face of a crisis or breaking news development
- The NEON Guide to Progressive Media Work
- How to create a media package
- More resources from FWD+Organise 2021
- Australian Progress (Conference)
- Coronavirus infections_COVID 19 (Disease)
- FWD + Organise 2021 (Australian Progress Conference - Australia)
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice