NATIONAL Social Crisis

Why Chile’s Protesters Need a PR Campaign

JJ Rose has been working on global media strategies and campaigns for numerous social justice and pro-democracy issues for two decades. He sends Chile Today his thoughts on the social movement in Chile.

As Chile’s people take to the streets in search of social justice and true democracy, they would be advised to consider the tools at their disposal. While sheer numbers and consistency of demonstrations are valuable components in a successful campaign, public relations are at least as powerful. Yet this is often neglected by street demonstration and public protest movements.

As the protests continue, part of the pressure a movement like this can create is through generating international attention. No ruler likes critical world media parachuting into their backyard, nor are they comfortable with their administration being held up to the – not always reliable it must be said – spotlight of global social media.

But, while positive news media coverage of a protest movement can add impact, the truth is that media will not last the course. Nor will news media provide the context and the narrative necessary to engage local and international support and, hopefully for the movement, validation.

In building an appropriate PR campaign in this context, consider the tools undemocratic and/or irresponsible governments will deploy.

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Discredit, Attack and Marginalize

We can broadly summarize the standard response mechanisms used by governments under pressure as DAM – Discredit, Attack and Marginalize.

  • The Discrediting of protests will often mark the early counter campaign. The demonstrations will be cast as small, unimportant and/or ill-informed. Governments will seek to undermine by ignoring events, hoping to sell the idea they are both unconcerned and are getting on with running the country.
  • The Attack phase often begins once the discrediting has been introduced. Using more direct language and perhaps even state violence and intimidation can show either that the discredit phase has worked (and the attack is intended to dispel the remnants) or that it has failed and that more direct action is needed.
  • Marginalizing the protesters can, again, be a mark of either initial success or failure. Here, language becomes a particularly powerful strategic medium. Words like “rioters” or “terrorism” will be rolled out, along with phrases like “threat to national security” or “foreign agents.” This distances protesters from “normal” people and into the fringes where they can be easily suppressed.

The DAM outline is far from definitive. I intend this as a pocket reference only.

The presence of DAM obliges protesters to activate similar PR strategies.

It will be noted that underpinning the DAM strategy is language. As Donald Trump has shown, the ability to shape a narrative – no matter how unreasonable – can create political success from thin air.

Essentially a narrative is a means to build a bridge between two or more separate entities, using common materials, shared by both sides of the divide, as a bridge might use soil and stones from both banks of the river. In political terms, it suggests a story or personal experience of, say, a protest, to not only give it a context but a human scale. 

I call this giving the movement eyes, to meet the eyes of those looking in; “I to I”

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Personalize, Emotionalize or Humanize

As such, those involved in protest should work to reach out to those who are not involved. While social media can do this to some extent, the weakness of this format is that it tends to decontextualize and deconstruct. I can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the situation to fully trust or engage with such narratives. 

Finding ways to personalize, emotionalize or humanize the protest however does not necessarily require a movement (or movements) to set credible policy lines or even a political agenda as such. Nor does this requires a spontaneous series of demonstrations to establish a leadership group or a single leader.

For one, members of the public should not feel obliged to understand and create political outcomes, suggesting it is the role of civil movements to do so is simply part of the DAM process used by elites to confuse and head-off the energy such a moment generates.

Secondly, having a leaderless movement disallows elites from “decapitating” the movement by targeting its leaders.

Rather, setting a narrative dynamic in this context requires those within the movement to develop a story to which they can adhere and to find ways to explicate that the storyline, or storylines as the movement evolves, throughout the life of the campaign.

And violent protests almost never work: in PR terms, it simply fuels the DAM strategy. 

While favorable news media coverage is important, this is best done by outputting communications which are unedited by media interlocutors. Opinion articles are an example of such a means. Here’s an example of a personal narrative constructed as a news media comment article, from The New York Times.

There is a sense that what is happening today in global terms is a significant moment for us all. The triggers for the protest in Chile and elsewhere are essentially universal. Internationalizing the protests via good PR and narrative development can give these movements the focus and attention many deserve.

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