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Communications campaigns have traditionally been classified according to their end target or locus of change: the individual consumer or the mass public. Those aimed at the individual tend to draw their strategies and tools from a commercial perspective, using public relations, marketing, and advertising as the foundation for their campaigns. By contrast, publicly oriented campaigns tend to rely upon the theory and practice of politics as their foundation. What can foundations learn from these different schools of practice? Above all, intentionality. Together, these different schools arrange and deploy different techniques, based on their understanding of the core concepts of agenda-setting, framing, and persuasion, and arrive at vastly different conclusions about what matters in communications campaigning. For funders, an important lesson is that the variable exists and that the different practices can be used critically to refine any communications campaign’s theory of change, tools of analysis, operational strategy, products, and evaluation design.

The simple question, “What kind of campaign do we need for this problem?” would be an improvement over the imprecision that currently characterizes philanthropic communications. The comparisons offered below set the stage for communications campaigns that can realize the promise of becoming truly “strategic.” It is imperative that foundations interested in social change recognize that there is a body of knowledge that can help avoid the dangerous pitfalls of inappropriate communication strategies and provide an empirical foundation for strategies that can significantly advance their ultimate goals.


Communications practices that address social issues from the personal perspective are founded on the central tenets of product marketing. People are considered rational economic actors for whom a product campaign can be devised with the goal of influencing individual behavior. Communicating social issues, thus, is about applying marketing techniques to advance social causes. From this perspective, issue publics are essentially consumer target audiences, and practices like voting or developing a political or partisan identity are equated with becoming brand users. Typically, a particular behavior is the desired end-product; the goal is to get certain people to choose to do certain things.

In public relations practice, the central assumption is that effective relationships with consumer audiences are a function of the extent to which the organization and its issues are in good standing with the appropriate public. Based on the early formulations, public relations was primarily used by the private sector to draw attention to the organization itself for the purposes of enhancing the organization’s image and raising resources to support the organization’s goals. In the modern period, public and private organizations utilize public relations to disseminate information, heighten issue awareness, lobby public officials, and generally attempt to create an environment that is receptive to the organization’s message. As a practice, public relations embraces “publicity, press-agentry, propaganda, and advertising.”

The Communications Consortium Media Center has recently adapted public relations to the nonprofit sector by creating the concept of “strategic communications,” which it defines as the ability of organizations to treat “media relations and communications as important, fully integrated, consistent, and ongoing functions,” complete with sufficient investments. While strategic communications can be adapted to either individual or public goals, we have placed this approach within the public relations school of practice because it essentially promotes “best practices” among the nonprofit sector in classic public relations terms; for example, by adopting such traditional tools and techniques as effective spokesperson training and crisis management to social issues.

When foundations engage in public relations, they often do so to promote attention to a grantee or recognition of a signature program. While public relations may be important to organizational goals, as a practice it is often insufficient to meet the larger public goals associated with communications campaigns. One criticism of public relations is based on its emphasis on the organization over the issue: Public relations tends to ignore agenda-setting in favor of organizational identity. A news story on a promising new teen pregnancy prevention program might have been deemed a success for the simple reason that it got the organization’s name in the news. The broader goal of explaining the relationship between teenage pregnancy and high school matriculation to the public, or establishing the need to create more programs like the one profiled, are less relevant in a public relations approach than dominating news. Thinking more broadly, the story might have been viewed as a success simply because it raised the issue—it got the issue’s name into the news. This kind of evaluation is often seen in foundation write-ups that claim success in moving an issue on the public agenda based on the repetition of a phrase or a slogan in media commentary, due to a grantee’s efforts.

Public relations make use of a myriad of techniques designed to test the public’s favorable orientation to products, services, and organizations. Attention to how an issue is framed is important to this school of practice, but largely in promoting the likability of a product, issue, service, or organization. Applying public relations techniques to framing social issues would likely result in communications materials and strategies designed to win acceptance for a particular program by using persuasion to manipulate the public’s feelings about the program participants. The reader of a news story on a successful teen pregnancy program would “feel good” about that program and those participants. As the literature on exemplification suggests, however, the reader would be unlikely to extend that favorable impression beyond that particular program or set of participants. Persuasion techniques might be used effectively and appropriately to convince individuals to enroll in, donate to, wear a button in support of, or access a Web site about that teen pregnancy prevention program. These techniques would be less suited to leading the public to question the social conditions that lead to teen pregnancy, from poverty to social isolation.

Public service as an advertising category was pioneered as the goal of the hybrid invention to bring the experience of traditional product advertising techniques to serve people and social causes. The underlying assumption is that memorable communications creating a favorable image will lead to the actions suggested, for social issues just as for products. This variation assumes that information, often presented as an emotional appeal, can persuade and motivate people to alter their thinking or behavior in relation to social and health issues as well as conventional consumer choices. The typical public service campaign relies on television, print, and/or outdoor ads. Most public service advertising relies on donated media, although there is a recent movement toward paid media schedules. It is typically sponsored by nonprofits or government agencies and features “non-political” messages promoting information or behavior the mass public already supports. Most campaigns asked for a response from the public (and) made it simple for them to call in without charge. Thus, public service advertising—as defined by the Ad Council—seeks to apply persuasion techniques to social causes, resulting in personal actions.

Traditional public service advertising frames the issue in terms of personal responsibility and benefits and, while it attempts to place an issue on the nation’s agenda, it does so for personal, not public, action. Critics of this approach charge that this perspective is inherently a “blame the victim” orientation, reducing political issues to personal problems. Because people may not distinguish between public service campaigns and other sources of information about a particular social issue, this can have the effect of reinforcing negative stereotypes about who is responsible for social problems.

With regard to specific practices, public service advertising has at least two weaknesses. First, its reliance on donated time means that ads typically do not receive favorable exposure. Ads that appear on local television at 4 AM Sunday morning or on billboards in obscure locations surely undermine the effectiveness of the strategy. Second, because the commercial outlets where PSAs routinely air have no intention of alienating their advertisers and audience, “non-controversial” issues are the norm for PSA campaigns. This, of course, makes this strategy less appealing for communications of value to the most distressed communities and dispossessed citizens.

Compared to public service campaigning, social marketing is more sophisticated in its integrated use of formative research and in the wide array of communications techniques it employs: from focus groups to survey research and individual interviews. However, these methods are used in ways consistent with the individual approach to campaigning, i.e., to determine whether the end-user of the communication was receptive to the message. Social marketing provides a framework in which marketing principles are integrated with social-psychological theories to develop programs better able to accomplish behavior change goals. In other words, critical to the definition of social marketing is the notion of influencing individual behavior for the good of that person or general society. Social marketing focuses explicitly on mass consumer needs and behaviors. The approach is based on the process of conceiving, pricing, promoting, and distributing ideas and services that satisfy individual and organizational preferences, which is accomplished by focusing on the “Four P’s”: product, price, place, and promotion.

Social marketing has evolved to include an explicit focus on the political environment because of the realization that the political environment defines the organization’s ability to realize its campaign goals and influence the behavior of its target audience. For example, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which lobbied Congress to restrict advertising to youth, was originally conceived of as a social marketing campaign. Similarly, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Cover the Uninsured” campaign uses social marketing approaches but applies these to socio-political objectives. Relying heavily on advertising and a Web site, the latter campaign also made use of news coverage, mentions of the campaign and the issue on TV shows, and the extensive distribution of posters, postcards, and other such materials. The goal was “to rally thousands of individuals and organizations in communities across the country behind a single, common cause—raising the public’s awareness about the problem, advancing the issue of health coverage as a national priority, and setting a nonpartisan tone for a constructive national discussion.” The way the campaign sought to achieve these policy goals, however, was strictly in keeping with social marketing theory: “show personal relevance, create a sense of outrage, and give them an easy avenue to do something meaningful.”

The campaign featured gripping testimonials from real people who had lost or been denied their health insurance. As even the campaign’s own evaluation admitted, however, “some groups see (health coverage) as a personal choice and/or responsibility and certainly not a top priority.” In order to achieve broad visibility and show personal relevance, the campaign chose to personalize the political issue. Whether this results in broader support for policy reform or merely makes people more sensitive to their own fear of loss remains a question to be answered by the evaluation. Typically, the extent of coverage and recall of the campaign slogan is used to signal that the campaign moved the dial with the public. “Cover the Uninsured” and the tobacco control campaigns waged by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are relatively unique in their use of social marketing techniques to address policy problems. More often, social marketing uses persuasion to frame messages oriented toward different populations of individuals; if it does engage in agenda-setting, it does so to change norms of behavior, not primarily to drive legislation or change conditions affecting the individual. By using the marketing metaphor of “choice,” social marketing assumes that people have the ability to “choose” a different option and are not constrained in these choices by their socioeconomic status, competing forces in the society, etc. Put differently, this approach places an undue burden on the individual.


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