2013 Retrospective: Death To The Campaign

I had been planning to write about how I dislike how governments seem to have an over-dependence on campaign-based communications. Last year, I got the perfect opportunity when a great friend, Alex Bornkessel, posted something on exactly that topic. I thought it would be a simple post, but then my great British friends took over and have regularly flogged it to the top of my posts.

But it didn’t stop there. The incomparable Emma Rodgers posted a response a few months ago that didn’t exactly agree with me, and she makes some great points. Definitely be sure to read mine AND hers, found here.

When I started this Your Audience is a Lie thing, I was hoping to parlay it into a nice little series. Unfortunately, before I could finish it with my bold prediction of what your jobs as government communicators will look like in a few years, one of the smartest and most dedicated people I know in health communications beat me to the punch. Alex Bornkessel, who runs an amazing MS charity with her family, called for death to the campaign this past weekend and I couldn’t agree more.

This idea that campaign-focused communications actively works against our goals of affecting real change (whether it be health-focused, preparedness-focused, or some other goal) in two different ways. First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?)

The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?

Alex puts the problem into specific relief here, and even offers the solution we’ve been talking about:

Traditional mass media models that follow TV PSAs, direct mail, radio announcements and the like allow us to safely distance ourselves from the nitty-gritty hard work of transforming our world. It puts us a hands distance from actually interacting with and serving our people. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

Our work is no longer about building a one-and-done campaign, but about creating shared experiences and building movements. To build bridges, we have to walk side-by-side with those we want to not only reach, but truly engage.

Her post is called Shifting from Campaign to Cause, which is sublime in it’s understanding of the problem. If we really want to affect change, we have to believe that our message is good enough for everyone, whenever they are ready to hear it, and understand that they’ll have questions and concerns and complaints and praise, and that it’s part of our job to find those comments and questions important and valid and respond to them.

Honestly, if we’re not invested enough in our work to do that, why are we even messaging?