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7 Min Read

Building Movements Building Power: What Social Movements Can Teach us About the Future of Strategic Communications

Key Takeaways: 

  1. Strategic communicators need to understand the dynamics of power in social movements and traditional models of power need to be questioned
  2. People closest to the movement should be the have a seat at the table and should have the power to set agendas
  3. Social movements depend on strong relationships 
  4. Foundations and other supporters of social movements should have conversations about organizations’ strategic communications goals

Session Summary:

“Relationships are the greatest unit measure of organizing.”

Quieting down a packed and chatty room, the session presenters quickly begin by stating the purpose of the presentation: To come to an understanding of social movements and the role of strategic communications.

They quickly engage the audience in an activity they refer to as a “spectrogram.” Everyone stands against a wall and the perpendicular walls are labeled as “agree” and “disagree.” When the presenter asks a question, participants move to either side based on their response. After a quick practice statement, Joseph Phelan from ReFrame Mentorship introduces the statement, “I often consider power in my communication position.” After audience members have had the chance to choose their spot, he walks down the line and asks people what they felt when he asked this question. Those who disagreed were shocked to realize they never thought about it or felt like their job was to communicate facts, not to worry about power struggles. A participant in the middle said she needs to think more about power. Finally, a participant who strongly agreed saw her role as a communicator as priming powerful audiences to make important decisions. 

Foundational to understanding social movements is a grasp of the concept of power. Phelan introduces two types of power: direct and personal. Direct power is the ability to tell individuals what to do and expect that outcome. Personal power is often more indirect and systemic, such as white privilege. Power can also be broken into three subsets: social, economic and political. Social power is the power to influence others. Economic power is the ability to buy and sell and be an active participant in the economy. Political power is the ability to govern. Power is the ability to set the agenda and distribute resources. 

The presenters then move into a discussion of the five foundational concepts of grassroots strategic communications in social movements: 

  1. Social movements contend for power. How are we as communicators contending for power to advance causes?
  2. Social movements envision a new world. If your narrative is a rebuttal to the traditional narrative, you don’t have a narrative.
  3. Social movements foster individual and group transformation. Strategic communication needs to be transformative in its approach. The process of developing narratives has to model power-dynamic shifts we want to see in society; therefore, the people closest to the issue should set the agenda. 
  4. Social movements are dependent on relationships. Sharing information and calling for action is not enough. Community engagement matters. Individual relationships matter. Just because we move in the same direction does not mean we share the same values. An organization cannot parachute into a community and solve its problems. We move at the speed of trust. That’s why grassroots marketing is important. 
  5. Cycles of contention / iteration. When Donald Trump got elected, membership of #blacklivesmatter dropped, media hits dropped, people asked if the organization was still around. When you build power, the opposition does too. The height of the Black Power Movement was followed by the HIV/AIDs epidemic, The War on Drugs and The War on Poverty.  

The #metoo movement highlights the effectiveness of relationships in making social change. Do you know who the founder of the #metoo movement is? No it was not Alyssa Milano. Very few people know, and that is because the founder, Tarona Burke, knew if she used influential celebrities as her mouthpiece that she had strong relationships with, enter Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan, she could reach the entire country. This movement not only highlights the importance of relationships but the shift of power from traditional structures. Burke was an organizer that worked alongside other organizers to spread information and incite action. Finally, the narrative was not one of ‘trama porn.’ The #metoo movement was directed by individuals who had experienced it first-hand and were empowered to make a change. Minorities were also given a seat at the table. The takeaway: leaders need to have the willingness to let others be the engineer of the moment.

¡Alto Arizona! was a response to Arizona’s Senate Bill 10 that targeted the undocumented community and coded racial profiling into law by requiring undocumented residents to carry their papers or face a misdemeanor. Advocates of the issue traveled to Arizona and started a grassroots movement to build deep relationships with the community and support them through strengthening the political infrastructure within the community. The presenters emphasize how this case is a successful example of taking a hyperlocal issue and making it national through relationships and grassroots building. 

Zaineb Mohammed, Communications Officer of Borealis Philanthropy, then introduces five questions foundations should ask themselves when supporting grassroots communications: 

  1. Who should tell the story of organizations doing work on the ground? It shouldn’t be the grantor. If the grantee doesn’t have the capacity, they should wonder why they aren’t investing in their ability to share. 
  2. Who are we building relationships with? Are we being honest about power-dynamics? The relationship should not just be transactional. Consider collaborative projects, regranting opportunities and opportunities for networking. Plant the seed for collaboration to build a lasting relationship.  
  3. Are we asking grantees open-ended questions about the communications support they need? What would a communications assistant look like? What do you need to execute a communications plan?
  4. What are the stories we could tell about our own institutions that would be useful to grassroots groups? Could we be transparent about grantmaking and decision-making processes? 
  5. Does our institutions view supporting grantee communications capacity as a part of its organizational strategy? Social change communicators should be a part of the strategy.

Questions from the Audience: 

Q: How do we solve the problem of underfunded nonprofit communications?

A: We have to understand that “trickle down communications,” the idea that if you fund education then the educated will go and spread that information, is not effective. We need to use an intersectional approach that value the concerns of the masses over a single group or individual. 

Q: What does strategic communications mean?

A: (1) Have a strategy to your advertisement placements. Why the New York Times?

(2) Define your target audience. If you want to talk to the general public as a whole, you will end up talking to no one.

(3) Build an ongoing communications structure, not just a crisis communications plan.


These notes were captured by Anthony Rivera and have been reviewed by the presenters Shanelle Matthews, Joseph Phelan, and Zaineb Mohammed.


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