In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already!” in the Spring 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argue that organizations all too frequently attempt to raise awareness about their issue, as if awareness automatically translates into action for change. Instead, they argue, organizations must communicate more strategically with their public audiences, giving people concrete calls to action.
Christiano and Neimand explain that there are four specific risks to doing awareness campaigns the wrong way. Done improperly, awareness campaigns can: (1) lead to no action; (2) reach the wrong audience; (3) create harm; and (4) generate a backlash.
As an example of how well-intentioned campaigns can result in no action, the authors cite the CDC’s very witty “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign, which went viral but led to no measurable increase in people’s actually taking the recommended steps for disaster preparation. As an example of a creative and popular campaign that may have actually created harm, the authors cite the “Dumb Ways to Die” music video, which was created to encourage safety and decrease the deaths around trains in Australia. Sadly, the sweet-sounding song and cartoon video make death seem less horrifying and, importantly, did not take into account the research that shows that such imagery can actually increase suicide among those already contemplating it. As the authors put it, “Unfortunately, it is uncommon for practitioners to conduct a review of academic literature as part of the early stages of any effort. . . . The gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.”
This is all particularly interesting to us since we created See Jane Fight Back because we were tired of the uphill battle it had been raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of women’s self-defense training. We have not felt particularly successful in getting women’s self-defense training to be an accepted part of the rape prevention discourse.
So let’s consider awareness campaigns for sexual assault prevention. These often lead to no action (other than after-the-fact reporting) or they create harm when, by not mentioning the research showing how effective active resistance can be, they rob women of the knowledge and skills to thwart an attacker and position women as damsels in distress who must rely on men’s good intentions. And the backlash is rampant, such as when Nina Sanchez, who won the Miss USA title in 2014, advocated self-defense training for girls and women as a rape prevention strategy.
When we look at the sexual assault prevention campaigns, it is obvious that those campaigns have not conducted a review of the academic literature. We have been a broken record, trying to tell people about the scholarship showing how effective self-defense is. Which leads us to examine our own campaign.
How effective is our campaign to advocate self-defense? To do well, it must move people to learn the empowering tactics of verbal and physical resistance to sexual assault and/or move policy makers to provide such training.
According to Christiano and Neimand, a successful public interest communications campaign contains four elements: (1) targeting your audience as narrowly as possible; (2) creating compelling messages with clear calls to action; (3) developing a theory of change; and (4) using the right messenger.
So here are our questions:
Have we targeted our audience properly? Do we have an audience, or instead, audiences? Women and girls are a diverse group – to target our audience narrowly, as Christiano and Neimand suggest, we may need different messages, theories, and messengers.
What about the message–if we came up with a compelling message with a clear call to action, what would it be? Having a clear call to action is no guarantee of success, as we learned from the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse campaign, which made it crystal clear that you ought to make an emergency kit. But having a clear call is one of the four necessary elements of a successful public interest communication campaign.
What about our theory of change–do we need to rethink that? We’ve been thinking that as more women feel that pleasurable sensation of empowerment as they develop an efficacious relationship with their own potential for setting boundaries, they will be more likely to set boundaries and men, recognizing that more and more women in their midst are setting strong limits, will be less likely to see women as easy targets to prey on. The data suggest this is true, but perhaps, with the goal of raising awareness, this isn’t the theory that compels women and girls to embrace self-defense.
And finally, we are thinking that the self-defense advocacy movement needs the “right messenger”– perhaps a cool woman to whom girls and young women would listen. Lady Gaga? Beyonce? Pink? Laverne Cox? Serena Williams? Who do you think our messenger should be?
These are the questions we must answer if we want the research on self-defense to wind up making a real difference to prevent sexual assault. Tell us what you think in the comments section!