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Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
Communications Error #1
A Failure to Communicate Strategically


  • Communications efforts themselves can promote social justice by changing the public’s mind about key policy issues.
  • Very few non-profits integrate their communications strategies into broader, long term strategies of social justice.
  • Many social sector organizations fail to use communications strategies to change the public’s mind about critical issues of the day. And that shortcoming can have serious policy implications.

For those readers who are new to this series of blog posts, I am posting columns every month about the communications lessons that I learned from my decade-long involvement in the campaign to repeal ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ (DADT). Each posting focuses on an error that I made, or that I saw other groups make, followed by thoughts about what could have prevented the mis-step.

The effort to repeal DADT has been viewed as a textbook example of social justice advocacy, and public education was one component of the campaign. Hence, lessons from the repeal struggle may merit consideration by social justice advocates working across a range of issues. That said, I should emphasize that my experiences have been informed by just one campaign, and that lessons I learned may not be relevant beyond my narrow lane. So I want to be clear in saying that I am not claiming any across-the-board validity to my insights, and also that I’d love to hear from readers who have a different take on things, and who think that lessons emerging from the DADT repeal campaign may not be helpful, or may even be counter-productive, when applied in other realms.

When DADT was repealed in 2010, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was hard to understand why the campaign had been difficult. By 2010, roughly 75 percent of the public, including majorities of Republicans and regular church goers, thought that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military. During the endgame, a few military leaders and Republican politicians swore that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would undermine the military. But no one took them seriously.

But that’s not how things started in 1993, when President Clinton tried to force the Pentagon to lift its ban. In response to Clinton’s efforts, opponents said that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would undermine “unit cohesion,” the bonds of trust that enable units to fight together. As a result, Clinton’s opponents claimed that if the ban were lifted, military effectiveness would suffer. Opponents were strategic and aggressive, and they repeated the unit cohesion argument so often, so forcefully and so convincingly, that they created a conventional wisdom. Once their frame took over the conversation, there was really nothing gay rights advocates could do. What politician could support any policy that would undermine military effectiveness?

Thanks to the success that repeal opponents had in framing the national conversation, one of the key challenges that gay rights advocates faced throughout the 17-year campaign to repeal DADT was to change the public’s mind about an idea that had become deeply entrenched, the notion that openly gay service would harm the military. We had to use communications to change the public’s mind. Alongside all of the other strategies involved in the repeal campaign, including litigation, lobbying, field organization, and grassroots activism, the campaign required a communications component.

We did pursue just that, and in the end our efforts succeeded, and the public came to understand that it’s discrimination that hurts the military, not gays and lesbians. And that understanding in turn, was necessary to lock down so as to make it safe for politicians to repeal DADT.

In this month’s column, I’d like to focus on what I see as the biggest error, the biggest waste, and the biggest tragedy associated with communications efforts in the non-profit sector. In particular, in my experience, very few non-profits integrate their communications strategies into broader, long term strategies of social justice. In other words, most non-profit communications departments focus on getting the name of their parent organization into the media, and/or attracting media attention to the organization’s various “outputs” or “products,” whether those are research studies, direct services, advocacy, litigation or something else. But they don’t use communications to advance social justice in any direct sense.

My institute, the Palm Center, made this very same mistake when we first got involved in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) repeal campaign. I thought that our media goal should be to get the institute’s name in the newspaper and on television and radio as often as possible. I didn’t understand that there’s an important opportunity to think about another approach to communications.

I understand the value of conventional uses of communication. In many cases, such efforts are crucial, as media attention is essential for fundraising, and fundraising is essential for each organization to pursue its mission. In this indirect way, therefore, communications efforts promote social justice indirectly by enabling organizations to raise funds that they use to do good work.

The missed opportunity that I see, however, is that communications efforts themselves can promote social justice. Not just by drawing attention to an organization or its products, but by changing the public’s mind about key policy issues. In short, many NGO’s fail to use communications strategies to change the public’s mind about critical issues of the day. And that shortcoming can have serious policy implications.

Consider an example. According to a recent political analysis published in the New York Times, the Republican party may be in the midst of a strategic shift designed to appeal to socially liberal, economically conservative white suburban voters. These voters have been turned off by the GOP’s culture war against gays, lesbians and other minorities, and have tended to vote democratic. By playing down its culture war rhetoric and targeting messages about the dangers of high taxes and government spending, the GOP thinks it can peel away some white, suburban voters from the Democratic coalition.

But why would socially liberal, economically conservative voters be receptive to messages about the dangers of high taxes and government spending in the first place? The reason, of course, is that the right has completely dominated the national conversation about government for the past three decades, and has created a powerful, overarching conventional wisdom that (1) government spending is high; (2) high government spending is wasteful; (3) taxes are high; (4) government programs primarily benefit poor people; (5) government spending is disproportionately directed at poor people; (6) government programs don’t work.

The facts are inconsistent with these messages. Yes the government spends a lot. But when you separate civilian from military spending, you see that our civilian spending on schools, roads, social insurance and the like, is at about the same level as a banana republic. Yes taxes are high. But they’re much lower than in comparable nations. Yes the government makes mistakes. But so do corporations. Yes the government has programs that help poor people, but (unbelievably), government spending on the rich is higher for each family than spending for each poor family.

But how many organizations are doing anything to change the public conversation? How many organizations have savvy communications strategies to explain to the public, repeatedly over time, that government spending is low. Taxes are low. Spending per rich families is higher than spending per poor families. And so on? The answer is very few if any. There are many good-government organizations doing important work to strengthen democracy. But I don’t see any effort to use communications as part of this strategy. I don’t see streams of media headlines proclaiming for example, that “New Study Shows Government Spends More on Rich Than On Poor.”

As a result, the playing field is already tilted heavily to the right on any policy conversation about a specific issue. For example, given the prevailing conventional wisdom, it has been easy for the right to create a phony anxiety about a “spending crisis,” which, in turn, has a range of implications for the government’s ability to stimulate the economy and reduce income inequality.

If it’s true that NGO’s could do more to use communications strategically to change the public’s mind about critical issues, what’s the next step? How, exactly, can small organizations inform that national conversation? For possible answers to this question, please stay tuned until I post the next column.

Aaron Belkin is a scholar, author, activist, and dancer. He has written and edited more than twenty five scholarly articles, chapters, and books, and he designed and implemented much of the public education campaign that eroded popular support for military anti-gay discrimination. After the military’s gay ban was overturned, Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley said of Belkin, “Probably no single person deserves more credit for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelkin.


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