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How does a nonprofit, nongovernment organization promoting social change get its message to the public?
That was the question explored last week at the annual Media Marathon organized by Agenda, the Israeli Center for Communication Strategy at Moshav Yad Hashmona, near Jerusalem, which aimed to educate the spokespeople and directors of more than 30 NGOs on some of the more creative ways to gain media attention.
"The public is overloaded with messages and media," said Orit Agami, Agenda's director of consulting and training, and the person responsible for developing the three-day conference's program. "If an NGO's [campaign] is not original, then its message gets completely lost."
A former journalist and spokeswoman for the Peres Center for Peace, Agami said social action groups needed either a "gimmick" or to periodically restrategize their campaigns to be successful. She gave an example from several years ago, when Agenda advised NGOs fighting poverty to refocus their campaigns on the country's working poor.
"It was after Bibi [Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu], as finance minister, called the unemployed 'lazy bums,'" she recalled. "There was no point the NGOs fighting him on that - even when you are right, you don't always win. It was better to reframe the picture and introduce the working poor - no one could argue that someone working but still unable to feed his family was a 'lazy bum.'
"Three years ago, no one was aware of the concept, but we brought it to people's attention and got the media interested in their plight."
During a panel discussion on Thursday morning, representatives from Amnesty-Israel, Greenpeace-Israel, the Life Movement and the Movement for Quality Government described their most creative campaigns and some of the original ideas that have facilitated social change in recent years.
Amnon Vidan, director of Amnesty International-Israel, gave the example of the organization's recent worldwide arms control campaign. He said that rather than ask the pubic to sign a standard petition, the organization photographed more than one million people all over the world and presented a visual petition to the United Nations. In October 2005, more than 50 nations met at the UN and agreed on a global standard for marking and tracing small arms.
Another presenter, Greenpeace-Israel spokeswoman Theodora Kratchovsky, said her group sometimes used shocking and dangerous publicity stunts to protect the environment. She showed pictures of activists climbing London's Big Ben and following Japanese whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean.
"We like to use creative and inspiring methods to gain attention, but we always tailor it to a language that the average person can understand," said Kratchovsky.
While groups such as Greenpeace and Amnesty have the backing of international donors, Agami said NGOs could be creative even with limited resources.
Shuki Levanon, spokesman for the Movement for Quality Government, said that sometimes the simple ideas were the winners. He recalled a demonstration held by the group in Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin, where only a handful of protesters showed up. To save the protest, those present arranged plastic chairs in the shape of an Israeli flag and labeled each chair with the name of a Knesset member. The group then invited media photographers to film the "protest" from a nearby rooftop. The effect was extremely powerful, he said.
Agami said Agenda distributed monthly newsletters providing advice to more than 160 NGOs.
"Israel is so dominated by a political and defense agenda," she
said, "it is very important for us to teach these groups and to help them come up with more original ideas."