Activist Messaging Strategies

How you frame your movement, organization, and campaign has an enormous impact on your potential for success. Strong messaging strategies can boost the effectiveness of other tactics, while poor messaging can hinder your ability to make change. This is not optional—you are always sending a message about what you stand for when you talk to the public and policymakers, design your website, make protest signs, and interact with the media. Every organization should ensure they have effective messaging both on long-standing materials (such as mission statements and websites) and for all new campaigns.


The most effective messaging and framing strategies include:

  • Use clear, specific language
  • Apply diagnostic and prognostic frames
  • Use on master frames with wide appeal
  • Consider your audience
  • Secure media coverage


Use clear, specific language


Detailed and specific messages almost always lead to more participation, support, and funding than vague and unclear messages.[1] One study found that individuals who were given detailed descriptions of the specific work done by a charity (e.g., “provides bed nets that protect against mosquito-borne malaria to families in Africa”) donated more money than individuals who were given very general descriptions (e.g., “provides a broad range of aid to people across the globe”).[2]


Apply diagnostic and prognostic frames


Diagnostic and prognostic frames are both key to social movement success.[3] Diagnostic frames diagnose the problem—they tell people what is wrong. Prognostic frames offer a solution—they tell people what they need to do to help.


Diagnostic and prognostic frames are important because they force you to have a plan and a goal. Organizations that attempt to vaguely “raise awareness” without a specific diagnosis of the problem or a clear solution with defined targets often wind up burned out and frustrated. Social change will not magically fall in your lap from “raising awareness;” if you don’t know exactly who needs to implement what action to solve which problem, and if you can’t communicate that to others, you likely won’t see progress.


Diagnostic and prognostic frames were also proven to be one of the most important conditions for securing positive outcomes for homeless organizations.[4] Try to always include these two frames in all of your messaging. You do not necessarily need to write essays on the topic; in fact, highly dense and technical messaging can sometimes push individuals away. Depending on your context, including a couple of simple sentences can be enough to boost your effectiveness.


Use master frames with wide appeal


Master frames—messaging strategies that emphasize broad, widely cherished values such as rights, democracy, and freedom—help increase activist recruitment[5] and boost social movement success.[6]


Master frames are successful because they help people contextualize your movement and campaigns. If you’re fighting for rights for marginalized groups, talking about the master frame of civil rights can greatly help your cause, as people already have an established understanding of the importance of civil rights and can apply those values and understandings to your group. Research has shown that political elites were quick to include American Indians, Asian Americans, and Latinos in affirmative action legislation because they saw their needs as similar to African Americans, who had already secured civil rights legislation.[7]


Consider your audience


One messaging strategy does not suit all contexts.[8] Indeed, research has shown that organizations that change their messaging to suit their targets are more likely to see success.[9] You may need different messaging strategies for when you’re recruiting volunteers and activists (which we will discuss in Part 2) than for when you’re conducting campaigns, and you will likely need to switch your messaging throughout the course of a campaign.


This does not mean that you need to be secretive or slimy, or that you should compromise your values in order to manipulate others. Instead, you need to recognize that different people in different contexts have different frameworks for understanding and responding to the world. Our goal is not to manipulate, but to help a wide range of people in various contexts understand our movements better.


If you’re working in a legal context, such as fighting a lawsuit or working with policymakers, messages that talk about human and civil rights are effective.[10] You should also do your homework to incorporate legal terms and relevant policy and court cases into your arguments.[11]


If you’re working within a market setting, such as with a company or business, messages that focus on competitive advantage and cost-benefit calculations are usually more successful. Companies and institutions care about making a profit, increasing their customer base, and having a positive reputation. Your messaging should directly address these goals. The most successful messaging makes corporations compete with each other to become the most progressive companies, sparking landslides of positive changes, rather than making corporations fight against your cause and your organization.


Your messaging also needs to change based on the experience and knowledge of your target. Individuals who are uninformed about issues respond better to non-assertive, friendly messages.[12] They often respond with backlash, anger, and resistance to pushy and strongly-worded messages that make demands.[13] One study found that environmental slogans tend to be more assertive, which may hinder their ability to persuade and appeal to individuals who are uninformed about environmental issues.[14]


Secure media coverage


Having your campaign, organization, or issue area covered by mass media can be a helpful step in securing future wins. Research has indeed shown that mass media impacts public opinion on relevant activist issues[15] and the political agenda.[16] Activist media can also help coordinate and organize activists, increase political awareness, and support sustainable business practices.[17]


Many of the factors that lead to mass media coverage have also been proven to lead to campaign wins. Research, including a study on more than 1,200 U.S. social movement organizations, has identified characteristics of movements that are most likely to make the papers or the evening news. Specifically, media coverage typically follows large, well-known organizations with coalitions who routinely host demonstrative events (such as protests) that mobilize large numbers of people.[18]


One study also found that Black Lives Matter’s Twitter account helped generate mass media attention around police killings of Black people, which then helped attract the attention of government officials.[19] Another study found that comments and posts on Congress members’ and congressional offices’ social media pages can influence elected officials, and it may only take around 10 comments from concerned citizens to create an impact.[20] However, activists need to be timely, as comments on old social media posts are unlikely to be seen. These studies show that social media is a good option for attracting media attention for smaller or more grassroots organizations.


NEXT SECTION: Effective Educational Programs


[1] Cryder, Lowenstein, and Scheines 2013; Genevsky, Västfjäll, Slovic, and Knutson 2013; Grant, Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Lapedis, and Lee 2007

[2] Cryder, Lowenstein, and Scheines 2013, p. 18

[3] Benford and Snow 2000; Cress and Snow 2000

[4] Cress and Snow 2000

[5] Noonan 1995; Zuo and Benford 1995

[6] Benford and Snow 2000; Creed, Scully, and Austin 2002; Noonan 1995; Skrenty 2006; Zuo and Benford 1995

[7] Skrentny 2006

[8] Adams and Gynnild 2013; Heitlinger 1996

[9] Creed, Scully, and Austin 2002; Edelman, Leachman, and McAdam 2010

[10] Creed, Scully, and Austin 2002; Pedriana 2006

[11] Pedriana 2006

[12] Baek, Yoon, and Kim 2015; Buller, Borland, and Burgoon 1998; Kronrod, Grinstein, and Wathiew 2011

[13] Dillard and Shen 2005; Kronrod, Grinstein, and Wathieu 2011; Quick and Considine 2008

[14] Kronrod, Grinstein, and Wathieu 2011

[15] Kellstedt 2000

[16] Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016; Van Aelst and Walgrave 2016

[17] Pearson, Tindle, Ferguson, Ryan, and Litchfield 2016

[18] Amenta, Caren, Olasky, and Stobaugh 2009; Andrews and Neal 2010

[19] Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016

[20] Fitch and Goldschmidt 2015


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