In this week’s community media discussion, I would like to test some ideas I’m working on about a model of communication that supports social change and development. I’ve called this social-action communication, and I thought it might be useful to talk about how we can develop community media techniques to foster a sense of natural, economic and social regeneration that is better suited to the challenges of the future. With the climate crisis, AI, globalisation, cultural homogenisation, nationalism and the many potentially harmful factors that are shaping our world, we need forms of communication and media that help us to come together to form a collective response to these problems. How do we enable community-focussed conversations that help us to manage and respond to social change? Join us to discuss how community communications and sensemaking can change society for the better by opening up our media to greater diversity, inclusivity, participation and civic engagement?
In accounting for the way we bring about social change, we’ve got to understand what role communication plays in the way that we develop our ideas based on our experiences. This is a developmental process that flows through stages and that cycles, and is always changing and evolving into something different. I’ve been trying to respond to the accepted ways that we are told that communication works, as a product of information management and systems processing mindsets. We are familiar with ostensibly illustrative terms that purport to explain failures to communicate, such as ‘noise and static’, ‘data-corruption’ and ‘package fragmentation’. As metaphors taken from the world of electronic computing, these terms have dominated our modern ways of thinking about what is meaningful and what makes a system optimal and efficient.
Unfortunately, I’m not a system thinker, and so I’ve been trying to explore an alternative set of concerns related to the way we make the world meaningful, but collectively and individually. This is a set of notes I’ve been working around that I want to try to explain more fully. They are an outline for a set of principles that, I hope, can be used to reconceptualise thinking about communication for people who are interested in using media and communications practices for social advocacy and activism.
These principles identify what social action communications is, and how community media and reporting techniques can be used to tell stories in the service of positive social change. I hope this approach is useful in helping people to understand that the constant changes we face, have to be understood as a process of mediation of the world, where we create the world rather than just receiving information about it. We are not just processing machines, we are also sensing, judgement and valuing beings.
The way that people operate in social organisations, civic and community groups, think about how to communicate to help bring about regenerative social change, also itself needs to change. The consensus is slowly being built that we can’t go back to how we lived before we understood the crisis in the planet’s climate, or we introduced machine learning, or we globalised the consumer goods market, or we displaced a sense of belonging for a sense of brand identity. Those of us who are interested in positive social change also need to develop an alternative communications process that is more meaningful and offers greater opportunities for positive natural and social regeneration. This is going to have to include blended learning across multiple forms of media, incorporating hands-on practice combined with topic discussions, critical thinking and reflexive learning techniques.
What is Social Action Communication?
Social action communication is the practice of creating, producing and sharing media that is designed to support and promote positive and inclusive forms of social change. This can take many forms and be shared and distributed across multiple platforms. Taken from the social value or SROI models of resource development, social action communication is any purposeful use of media that informs, educates and encourages people to respond to specific calls-to-action to do with a more regenerative, inclusive, creative and caring society. The aim is to enhance or engage people in determining their own regenerative priorities and needs, by involving them in debate, discussion and shared deliberation. Messages in the social action model are more often than not created by individuals acting as part of a mutual-aid collective, rather than from a position of assumption about group identity. These collectives are defined by a constitution or terms of reference and operate openly with the public. This is not a manipulative model of public relations, with shadow messaging, proxy communications or paid influence. Social action communications are a form of direct and transparent engagement with the public through and with media.
Social action communication, then, is in part defined by an Object Attitude theories of engagement, which recognise that people are drawn to activities and behaviours based on differences in their cognition and comprehension outlooks. There are signify differences in what forms our sense of social orientation, including what shapes our symbolic recognition and phenomenological identification practices. This includes additional dimensionality of needs, which themselves are shaped by differences in our cognitive and psychological orientation.
The Object Attitude approach recognises that in attempting to appeal to one limited set of criteria or symbolic dimension of people’s motivational capacity, a communications process will result in failure. Social change stories, for example, are best understood in the context of long-standing storytelling modes, such as myth, fairy-tale, legend and sagas, which are dependent on archetypal structures and patterns that recur in many forms of storytelling. This is because they work on several modes at the same time, regardless of what our materialist-minded voices tell us. Understanding how social change is enabled by stories is essential if we are to work with and enable a collective sense of shared meaning with our fellow respondents and collaborators.
To identify with other people, we need to form an understanding of how social stories work, and how they can enable advocates of change to facilitate discussion and consideration of the forms of change that need to be more deeply explored across different communities. By using archetypal motifs and figures in our storytelling, for example, we can resonate with people at much deeper levels of comprehension. Thus, we need to develop alternative approaches to the transactional, strategic and instrumental forms of communication theory that dominate mass-media models of marketing and public communications.
Social action forms of communication, therefore, usually seek to address a set of social and cultural needs and desires that are deeper rooted in our collective unconscious, and which can be thoughts of as the core human values that encapsulate what people care for. This approach reverses the transactional process and puts values at the core of developmental work. A communication model that stresses values, moreover, will emphasise, for example, the integration of female archetypal priorities of co-operation, collaboration and nurturing, and will eschew masculine archetypal forms of self-regard, status seeking and controlled goal direction activity.
Achieving change requires community advocates to address issues because of their ethical and moral underpinnings, while also addressing the developmental needs of the people participating in the collaborative and pro-social exchange of ideas and information. This means adopting a more facilitative, developmental and interactive approach to shared communication, and will result in the dismantling of the toxic, rapacious and short-sighted claims that self-interests and asset accumulation are the only way to exercise power over other people. As Frank Herbert attests, power attracts the corruptible, and media and communications are compelling ways of changing the world.
The shift to a social action way of thinking, then, means that we have to learn to accept that the setting for social change communication is different from mass communications and consumer marketing settings. In the social action mindset, consideration has to be given to facilitating the shift away from our own egotistic concerns, and the concerns of the bonded group or ‘tribe’ to which we are most closely associated, to making connections and fostering interactions with people who we are not traditionally close to. Those people with whom we have only weak bonds or social ties are increasingly important, but we have to put the social resources in place to enable us to connect rather than isolate ourselves.
There is an urgent need, then, to rethink the context of social communication through global networks and intercultural interactions. Given the challenges that we are facing, we are going to have to draw on some smart ideas outside the market-will-provide orthodoxy, and draw on concepts such as the Nordic Bildung principle, which teachers us that social action communications are necessary if we are to facilitate discussion about trans-personal and transcultural practices that are rapidly becoming part of our social experience, and which ought to be much more prominent in the communication process as well. So, rather than compartmentalising us according to market-segmentation principles, the social action approach to communication seeks ways to recognise people’s contribution to the greater good of the life of the community that ensure cohesion and preparedness for the future.
I’ve written about these a lot recently, so I’m going to list them, and come back to expand or correct them based on experience and further reflection:
- Self-representation and voice empowerment underpin the model of engagement within community media practice.
- Community media stresses media capability, media literacies and media engagement as the core activity of community reporting, while the importance of professionalism and other restrictive social practices are diminished.
- The local neighbourhood, or community locale, are the primary settings for community reporting, with storytelling within these situations achieving deeper and more meaningful reporting habits.
- The proliferation of media devices and platforms has reduced the technical barriers of entry to media communications. Community reporting uses what is at-hand and what is cost-effective.
- Community reporting is agnostic about social engagement into most shared media networks, and while they will differ in what they afford, both technically and socially, they are regulated by the same symbolic and archetypal principles which enable them to be meaningful to people.
- Having access to media platforms is not necessarily the best way of ‘levelling-up,’ instead, social action communicators practitioners have to seek available media platforms that fit with the social change needs of the different people they interact with and seek to influence. These vary according to age, gender, cultural background, and so on.
- Social networks form around intersections of social capital, which can be expressed either as bonding capital or bridging capital.
- Learning to recognise and work with the different forms of social capital improves the sensitivity to culturally differentiated communications.
- Amplification of social messaging utilises techniques associated with the wisdom of crowds, decentralised network engagement, and pathway modelling, including awareness of gatekeepers and influences.
- The archetypal resonance of messages is what ensures that social action messages gain traction within different communities, at different levels, and from different perspectives, such as symbolically, affectively, logically or sensorily.
- We can use Jung’s model of personality orientations to adjust messages so that they work with people of different orientations: thinking, sensing, feeling and judging.
- Passing on the developmental and collaborative techniques of communication are the best way to ensure that an activist network is sustainable.
- Providing feedback, support and positive engagement rather than assessment and evaluation, ensure that and activist media network is driven by reciprocity and mutual exchange and is self-regulating.
- Identifying where the boundaries are embedded and facilitating activists and advocates to redistribute content to avoid blockages and gatekeeper restrictions.
- Quantitative techniques can be used to identify changes that have occurred either as a result of the messaging, or indirectly as corresponding social indicators change over time.
- Effectiveness is not measured or counted by the number of users or listeners, though that remains important, but by the quality of engagement and what participants feel they have got out of the reciprocal communications process.
- Evaluation can be taken from participant stories, testimony, online interaction, and supporting testimony from allies.
- Rather than measuring KPIs, the social action developmental cycle is aligned with other related engagement processes. Does the content and discussion, for example, get used in planning for future associated projects?
- Recognising how individuals understand the drivers of change and the progressive modes by which change is enabled, means using reflexive testimony and biography that focusses on shared and lived experience.
- Recognition and incorporation by other agencies of the developmental process, which is validated and given legitimacy in other progressive fields that might not be obviously aligned with the core communications functions.