Civil society and the need to communicate with impact

Mario Lubetkin is Secretary General for Inter Press Services (IPS), a communications institution with a global news agency at its core and is dedicated to raising the voices of the South and of civil society. In this piece, written in advance of the CIVICUS World Assembly next week, he reflects on the importance of communication for achieving civil society’s goals and the challenges the sector faces in this regard.

Civil society faces multiple challenges to strengthen its communications and increase its space in the global information system. Those challenges must be addressed clearly and frankly requiring us to understand civil society’s own limits and mistakes, as well as the system’s characteristics and potential for the immediate future.


The situation can be analysed from multiple angles but we will focus on six aspects that, positively dealt with, either comprehensively or in part, may determine an important upturn in this process, always building upon the growing role of different civil society actors, which, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out, represent a true “superpower” in the international context. Recent events in North Africa and Spain, where social media played an outstanding role in the organisation of demonstrations and the dissemination of messages, should make us reflect on our future actions.

First, civil society must always include communications as part of its strategy and bear it in mind from the start of activity planning. The idea is to convey civil society’s issues and proposals to an audience that is increasingly avid for a clearer perspective of the future and possible solutions to current problems. The starting point from the communications point of view is not negative: many of civil society’s flagship issues, for example climate change, water, alternative energy sources, food prices crisis, gender, the role of South and emerging countries, are now part of the global communications agenda. For this reason, we should rethink and enhance the proposals to allow for greater public awareness and participation. One of civil society’s roles will be to go deeper into issues with adequate initiatives and “narratives” for the general public.

Second and related to the first aspect, communication policies should not be the sole responsibility of civil society’s press or communication officers but should include the participation of all its members and mainly its leaders. Recent experiences show that although there is a general concern about communication issues, when CIVICUS and IPS, for example, have promoted joint initiatives to facilitate the dialogue among major media and civil society, there has not been strong participation by civil society leadership. The reasons were always valid -“urgencies”, “tight agendas”- but show that, for some of the opinion-makers of this sector, communication is neither urgent nor part of their agendas. Until the movement is fully aware that communication is one of the keys in the battle of ideas and proposals, we will continue to play a secondary role and make it unnecessarily difficult to get the right message through.

Third, civil society’s main actors must clearly know how to act, which messages to convey and how to make them coincide with their colleagues’ similar views. The dispersion of strengths and messages should be avoided. If messages point in different directions, collective impact levels are reduced. Civil society’s themes and fields of action become increasingly wider and yet interconnected, which requires a much higher coordination level. Let us think of the preparation of Rio+20. Will it be just an environmental challenge or a debate of great ideas and proposals that will produce new paradigms for this first part of the 21st century? How many civil society actors, specialised in different but interrelated areas (environment, gender, poverty, economic justice, children, peace, global governability, etc.) should coordinate their messages to speak loudly, jointly, clearly and in a straightforward way? The same thing could be said about other events, including the preparation of the next high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan: by coordinating messages, their impact will be higher. In order to achieve this, mechanisms to reflect and raise awareness about the message should be created, as they don’t exist today. In general, communication issues are not part of civil society leaders’ agendas. The organisation of annual meetings of civil society leaders to define the central axes (not many) on which to focus the joint communication message -that each of the participants would develop according to his/her organisation’s own profile- would allow for aggregation and in so doing better deal with the issues on the global agenda. The idea is not to hide the diversity of points of view but to look for more coherence among them.

Fourth, the traditional tool of press releases has little impact if these are more focused on promoting the “brand”, i.e. the specific NGO, than the theme and the actions of the organisation. Senior journalists at the two meetings of media editors and civil society leaders organised by CIVICUS and IPS in Glasgow said “stop filling our mailboxes with press releases that don’t inform about the issues that interest us and just praise your organisations. You must be aware that this type of messages is immediately trashed”. At those same meetings the editors expressed their interest in having good information about the main issues and facts with which civil society constantly deals. The potential exists, but fully taking advantage of it depends on our capacity to adapt to the information channels according to the messages to be conveyed.

Fifth, to face these challenges, training is becoming more important each day. Civil society leaders should be better prepared in the field of communications to get their message through. This means training for specialised communication officers so that they can exchange views and experiences with their colleagues and increase the quality and impact of their work; training for small and medium-sized NGOs that are excluded from the powerful communication game and need to improve their capacities for more active and qualified participation; training for journalists, so that they understand better and more the actions and messages of civil society. One of the main difficulties that we face at events such as the World Social Forum, the impact and visibility of which is much weaker than its actual strength, is that journalists are not prepared to follow multiple, very different and complex issues. Paradoxically, just as history is proving the World Social Forum right in many of its predictions and analyses, the major media, those “shapers of public opinion”, are not increasing but in fact sharply decreasing their coverage of it. This silent treatment is a clear obstacle to the expansion of the WSF and a cause of real concern for many of its innumerable organisers and participants. This situation was recognised in the final February 10 declaration by the Social Movements of the WSF, which concluded that the forum must undertake “a battle of ideas, in which we cannot move forward unless there is a democratisation of communication.”

To know journalists and their needs is essential to accompany those responsible for elaborating civil society information addressed to them. Once again, a clear and understandable message conveyed with the right tools is fundamental. As expressed by major media editors themselves at the Glasgow meetings, they are willing to take part in the training process and explain to civil society organisations the kind of material they need and that later turns into publications. 

It is also important to identify the journalists from different media all over the world and at all levels that have been sensitive to and are prepared to cover civil society activities. Organisations could share information about the journalists and media that have showed those characteristics in previous occasions. It should be noted that thousands of journalists from all over the world covered the first editions of the WSF, but the movement never made the most of the potential represented by the extraordinary database of their contacts.

Naturally, we must work with and target those who lack information of civil society actions, but also a better interaction with the media that have traditionally followed those issues and continue to do it should be sought.

Sixth, we must leave behind the debate on the supposed contradiction between traditional communication tools and new social media. The challenge doesn’t lie in the tools but in the contents we transmit. The tools have increased civil society’s capacity for action and mobilisation but have not necessarily translated into greater impact of messages to citizens, even if their issues are now part of the world news agenda.

Let us think of the organisation of the World Social Forum through Internet, the levels of coordination among different social movements, the role of social media in the extraordinary events in North Africa and the like. Nobody questions the tools, but if we used them in a better and combined way to deliver a more focused message –but according to individual characteristics- the impact would be much higher. How many media outlets produce different representations of civil society? How many blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages promote civil society’s ideas and initiatives? What would happen if that enormous potential was partly focused on common messages? Impact would be huge. A true pool made up by these media would be a natural response to these challenges and limitations.

The above list could and should be much longer. The challenge is not to limit ourselves to a theoretical debate or a mere acknowledgment of our difficulties and limits. We should not deal with all the above points at once, but start a process that will lead us to gradually change direction. The implementation of any of the abovementioned points within our possibilities will certainly imply a turning point in our communication strategy. The execution of all of them will position us in another and qualitatively higher scenario in this context. Nobody can achieve this alone.

Only the sharing of capacities, visions and actions of multiple actors in the communications field will allow us to reach this new phase. To be able to do it is in our hands.