- Gail Woods WallerGail Woods WallerNational Association of Social Workers
The explosion of global media platforms and user-generated content has fundamentally changed the way people receive and share information. All organizations—whether corporate, government, or nonprofit—now function as media outlets for their constituents. Yet citizens have more power than ever to shape and filter the type of information they see, read, and hear, which creates greater political divisions, increases distrust in institutions, and ensures highly individualized media consumption. In this new environment, successful media campaigns for cause advocacy, branding, marketing, and public relations require culturally relevant messaging, multichannel integration, and targeted digital engagement.
- Macro Practice
- Policy and Advocacy
Updated in this version
Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.
Media and Society
Organizations and companies develop, implement, and evaluate strategic communication efforts to build public awareness, increase sales, secure donations, influence constituents, and enhance brand reputation. Groups use multimedia content, advertising, email, direct mail, and promotional events to engage customers, funders, and supporters. With the introduction of social media in the early 21st century, individuals gained access to powerful communication tools that have allowed them to share their ideas, passions, and projects online with millions (Breakenridge, 2008).
Consequently, the number of messages bombarding us daily is enormous, making it harder for organizations to get noticed. It is estimated that more than one billion hours of YouTube video content is viewed each day and the average American sees 1,700 digital ads per month. Attention spans are shorter, and everyone has the tools to publish and promote their own causes and share criticisms with the world 24/7 (Kotler et al., 2017).
The mass media of the 20th century was defined by large-circulation periodicals, network television, the film industry, and widespread radio syndication. These media platforms still exist, but the content they produce is available across hundreds of additional channels, multiple streaming services, thousands of podcasts and blogs, and dozens of social media websites. The transition of news from print, television, and radio to digital spaces has caused huge disruptions in the traditional news industry, especially the print news industry (Pew Research Center, 2021).
Consumers are often simultaneously watching, listening, reading, and reacting to messages on their laptops, smartphones, and other mobile devices (Breakenridge, 2008). Responding to the rapid development of digital media, most organizations have changed how they communicate and engage with external and internal stakeholders. Digital media can also significantly impact an organization’s reputation (both positively and negatively) in a matter of minutes (Kotler et al., 2017).
There are numerous ways to communicate in modern society, and significantly more competition to break through when promoting ideas that might drive meaningful social change. A strategic media campaign seeks to frame issues based on the way an organization would prefer to see topics addressed publicly (Conklin et al., 2021). But successful campaigns must also connect with the audience’s needs to achieve desired action and outcomes (Christiano & Neimand, 2018).
Despite changes in the media landscape, the best journalists on any platform enjoy huge audiences and share information that millions of people trust. Therefore, in addition to directly sharing content and ideas on their own publishing platforms, effective organizations encourage journalists to cover their issues in the mainstream media and work to convince social media influencers from different interest areas to feature their content (Pew Research Center, 2021). To be noticed today, organizations engage a broader mix of global media producers to amplify their messages across channels. Media plans must evolve to meet changing consumer media habits as new worldwide crises unfold every day (“Media Plan of the Year,” 2020).
Some of the most effective national and international communication campaigns are featured in media industry publications such as Advertising Age, Adweek, Digiday, Folio, and PRWeek. For example, the 2021 winner of PR Week’s “Campaign of the Year” award was a collaboration between Dove and the Joy Collective for the groundbreaking CROWN Act campaign. This campaign not only raised awareness about natural hair discrimination in the workplace but also helped pass antidiscrimination legislation in seven states, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington (“PR Week Awards,” 2021).
Other notable media campaigns have included the winners of the annual Silver Anvil Awards program. Since 1944, the Silver Anvils—which symbolize the forging of public opinion—have been awarded to American organizations that have successfully “addressed challenging issues with exemplary professional skill, creativity, and resourcefulness.” The awards are organized by the Public Relations Society of America to honor outstanding strategic public relations programs led by government organizations, associations, nonprofits, and corporations.
The Silver Anvil winners from 2021 included the following:
Washington State Department of Health for its effective Spread the Facts public education campaign during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. They won recognition for crisis communications and public service.
The 75th Commemoration of the End of WWII campaign created a “Salute Their Service—Honor Their Hope” theme to share the inspiring stories of some of the oldest living U.S. veterans who served in World War II. The campaign won for exemplary events and observances.
The California League of Women Voters created a #VotingMovesCA campaign to activate youth voices in widespread voter turnout. They won the award for expert social media influencer marketing.
Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin won an integrated communications award for its “For the Love of Cheese” national campaign.
Crayola took home the most effective Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program award for its “Crayola Colors of the World” campaign, which created and named new colors to increase representation of all human skin tones in their products and enhance pride among children of all ethnicities.
To achieve widespread awareness and action among target audiences, each of these organizations leveraged both traditional and digital media platforms. They reinforced their core messages and gained the attention of key influencers who could amplify their campaign position among large groups of people. Most importantly, these campaigns helped people see issues and possible solutions in compelling ways to drive new behavior.
Social Issues in Media
One of the benefits of having immediate access to vast amounts of information is the awareness it can create about a wide range of issues that shape our lives. The start of the new decade in 2020 was perhaps one of the most devastating from a public health perspective. But it was also one of the most extraordinary years in galvanizing widespread support for social issues that previously had received modest attention.
The public health community has achieved significant changes in public behavior over the years—including banning smoking in buildings, increasing childhood immunizations, and reducing industrial pollution. These efforts took decades to implement. However, as the COVID-19 virus started to spread in early 2020, the diligent scientists who study diseases and quietly advise leaders on how to contain them became some of the most sought-after media experts. Public health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the National Institutes of Health became household names seemingly overnight as Americans learned what the deadly pandemic was and how it would affect their lives (Pew Research Center, 2021).
State and local health departments also coordinated massive communication campaigns to help the public understand what was required for personal safety as millions around the globe became ill and hundreds of thousands of Americans died after contracting the virus. Mayors, governors, and many other government officials helped make difficult operating decisions with local hospitals, schools, and businesses to strike a balance between protecting the economy and saving lives. Crisis plans in all public and private organizations were tested in critical new ways (Tumpey et al., 2018).
At the height of the pandemic, most government officials communicated daily with the public about their leadership decisions. Private companies announced adjustments to their products and service delivery while managing newly virtual workforces. Everyone was under constant pressure to say and do the right thing.
The coronavirus pandemic clearly affected every industry and community, and efforts to wipe out the disease through mass vaccinations would determine how societies would function in the future (Ad Council, 2021). The use of media during the pandemic had a significant impact on many outcomes related to the global emergency.
While a national crisis is often effective at galvanizing public attention, disparate media organizations across the political spectrum make it difficult to ensure that consistently accurate information gets to all citizens in a timely manner. Astonishing advancements in media technology helped the American public to quickly adopt protective behaviors during the pandemic, such as social distancing, mask wearing, quarantining, and mass vaccinations. Unfortunately, misinformation was also repeated and reinforced instantly across multiple mass media channels and social platforms.
Political campaigns are perhaps the best example of how easily false information can spread in our current media environment and become the accepted narrative among millions of people (Wlezien & Soroka, 2019). People seek information that validates their existing worldview. In a crisis, guidance that conflicts with identity will often be rejected. Successful public health campaigns constantly work to achieve alignment between facts and beliefs among diverse groups of individuals (Christiano & Neimand, 2018).
Technology changes adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic will affect consumer attitudes and actions for many years to come (Kohli et al., 2020). With limited in-person interactions for several years, people learned to communicate through online meeting platforms for education, entertainment, and employment. Many organizations also learned they could meet constituent needs almost entirely online. For example, clinical social workers significantly increased community access to mental health and social services by using newly available telehealth tools and more flexible regulations (Glenn, 2020). Consumer demand will determine if and how these virtual services are promoted to the public after the pandemic.
In May 2020, a second crisis erupted in the United States. Following several videotaped incidents of fatal police violence against African Americans—including the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—a national conversation on race and social injustice exploded (Laurio, 2020). The Black Lives Matter movement, which was created in 2013, took on new urgency in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and gained millions of new supporters worldwide who took to the streets to demand major reforms in law enforcement. The group’s social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter evolved into an international slogan for antiracism advocacy.
Using digital marketing, social media, and journalism, local protests about police brutality and racial discrimination became a rallying point for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across all sectors, professions, and organizations, including social work (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2021). Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has become a cultural touch point in U.S. history (Good, 2021).
Responses to COVID-19 and institutional racism are just two examples of widespread media campaigns influencing the perceptions and behavior of millions of people during a national emergency. Both movements demonstrate the incredible power of leveraging community-based advocacy and global media technology to galvanize public action that saves lives (“Media Plan of the Year,” 2020). However, leaders and advocates will need ongoing research and compelling storytelling to sustain the significant policy gains made during these crises. Public memory is often short (Hattaway, 2020).
Making the public and politicians more aware of an issue can be a critical step in creating an environment where change is possible. Since the 1960s, national social work organizations have sought to engage social workers in political activity as required in the profession’s Code of Ethics. Social work’s collective goal is to “expand choice and opportunity” and to ensure “equity and social justice for all people” (Pritzger & Lane, 2017). Media outreach is an important tool in all human rights and social service advocacy efforts.
Policy makers and lawmakers communicate with their constituents through social media and third-party media organizations. They carefully monitor how their decisions and actions are presented by these same news outlets. Leaders generally want to advance legislation and policies that best serve the people who elected them, and journalists often have a good sense of what people in the community think and value (Haynes & Michelson, 1997). Knowing who to contact among media influencers and how to reach them about social work issues requires research and relationship building. In addition, compelling stories, rigorous data, engaging spokespeople, and brand awareness can make some causes more appealing than others (Elliott et al., 2016).
Digital media tools can expand distributed organizing. For example, COVID-19 underscored the value of digital tools in advancing labor rights and supporting collective action among working people (Pinto & Gutelis, 2021). One new development in communications planning for grassroots campaigns is the widespread use of online petitions. While op-eds, news releases, blogs, podcasts, and letters to the editor still have excellent advocacy value, many activists know that getting thousands of signatures on a petition through digital organizations such as Change.org and MoveOn.org can also attract the attention of both journalists and elected officials (Beato, 2014). Advocacy groups working in coalition on social issue campaigns can post shared positions via an online petition and then invite supporters to add comments and examples that strengthen their case (Brady et al., 2015).
Identifying the right target audience and delivering a clear call to action that people will act on requires having a methodology for how you will achieve change. It also requires understanding the issue well enough to know where change will have the greatest impact (Aaker & Smith, 2011). Successful public interest campaigns also need the right messenger. In order to inspire and persuade people to adopt a new behavior or embrace a new way of thinking, having the message come from people who have authority and credibility in your audience’s world matters. The most influential people in a community are the individuals who people trust for information; and who people trust is very much connected to how people see themselves, their values, and their identities (Christiano & Neimand, 2017). Campaign coordinators must choose spokespeople wisely or risk irrelevance or even backlash.
Types of Media
Communication today is instant, constant, often visual, and amplified by thousands, if not millions, of voices, perceptions, and strong opinions. The goal is always to build and execute media programs that are strategic and meet clear objectives (Godin, 2018). To do so, organizations must maintain their brand image and build relationships with a variety of stakeholders and constituents. Public relations, social media, digital marketing, and advertising are all part of successful outreach on behalf of an organization or cause.
For many public relations and marketing professionals, the PESO Model is a useful framework for building and executing integrated communication strategies that meet the speed of today’s media environment (Dietrich, 2014). From FedEx and the United Way to Congress and the NBA, organizations of all sizes use a wide range of media types and communication channels to achieve their audience engagement objectives.
PESO stands for:
Paid media: Paying for message placement in email, advertising, and event sponsorship.
Earned media: Earning third-party news coverage or endorsements through planned publicity and media relations.
Shared media: Building community through social media conversations.
Owned media: Engaging supporters and customers via websites, blogs, publications, podcasts, videos, webcasts, and other intellectual property.
In addition to strategy and tactical execution, research is critical to evaluating the impact of a media campaign. Real-world communication campaigns are judged on impact, actions that consumers take, and awareness about a brand, product, event, cause, or individual. Successful campaigns anticipate challenges, ensure that audiences are clearly defined, identify objectives, and prioritize resources efficiently to work best with each stakeholder (Luttrell & Capizzo, 2019).
The goal of public relations is two-way communication in which an organization provides information and receives (and listens to) feedback that improves the organization’s effectiveness. Media campaign organizers frequently ask themselves if the message is appropriate, meaningful, memorable, understandable, and believable to the prospective recipient (Miller, 2017).
Media strategies are used to get results in a wide range of campaigns, including brand building, community organizing, crisis communications, customer engagement, internal communications, political marketing, product and event marketing, and public affairs.
Most modern media campaigns start and end with digital outlets because the primary goal is to build positive word of mouth through maximum shares and comments on social networks followed by online action (Kotler et al., 2017). No generation is more influenced by this new reality than the youngest group of consumers and advocates in society, Generation Z. Coming of age during a time of immense media influence, this generation, born between 1997 and 2012, is the first fully wired generation. The technology at their fingertips has encouraged them to become well informed on big issues. As a result, Generation Z puts a great deal of thought into what they support, which they often do through online donations or virtual activism (“Undivided,” 2019). Given their early exposure to global social issues and the most advanced media tools in history, Generation Z also provides a powerful new model for civic engagement.
Social Work and Media
The public’s general understanding of social work and support for social workers has evolved since the founding of the profession during the Progressive Era in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression, many of the most sweeping New Deal relief provisions were written and implemented by social workers in President Roosevelt’s cabinet. In the 1960s, large recruitment campaigns drew thousands of new social workers into the field to help with President Johnson’s War on Poverty and to advance civil rights in the United States. In fact, NASW Social Work Pioneers Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr., helped plan the historic 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., and other key movement leaders (Pace & Clayton, 2020). Social work’s role in social reform and social welfare efforts was well known at the time.
In subsequent years, however, public understanding about the social work profession and support for the professionals doing the work began to wane. During the 1980s and 1990s the country’s social focus drifted away from a “public good” orientation to a highly individualistic one (Miller & Volmert, 2021). And at the beginning of the 21st century, research showed that while the general public believed social workers were compassionate helping professionals, most Americans hoped they would never need their services (Clark & Woods Waller, 2006).
In response to these findings, the NASW embarked on an aggressive nationwide media campaign in 2004–2010 called “Help Starts Here.” The program’s aim was to expand perceptions of who truly benefits from professional social work services. The NASW Foundation raised nearly $3 million in partnership with more than 100 schools of social work for national print and radio advertising, billboard placement in state capitals, satellite media tours, consumer and media blogs, video production, and Hollywood producer education. The goal was to elevate social work in the public imagination (Clark & Woods Waller, 2006). This successful campaign showed how social workers contributed value to all families and communities while still advocating for improved human services and increased public investments for those in greatest need.
Social work is a helping profession. It attracts people who are interested in creating positive changes in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Unlike other helping professions, principles of human and social justice are foundational to social work. All NASW media outreach efforts, therefore, help inform people outside the profession about social work values and social workers’ distinct expertise in navigating social systems and complex human relationships.
For example, ads featuring the stories of social workers and the clients they helped appeared in a series of Oprah magazine ads in 2006 and have been used in local publications across the country. These and other marketing efforts—coupled with growing public demand for clinical, healthcare, and school social workers in the last decade—have given the profession new opportunities to present social work skills and accomplishments to millions of people. NASW shares information on a daily basis to help tell the social work story to the media, the public, allies, and leaders.
Ongoing public relations, marketing, and advocacy campaigns at the chapter and national levels of NASW not only help the organization recruit and retain members but also showcase the widest range of contributions made in social work education, policy, research, and practice. In addition to NASW’s communications and public policy efforts, promotional and advocacy work by the nation’s schools of social work and the nonprofit sector help increase interest in and support for human services programs and social justice campaigns, which are often led by the nation’s 700,000 practicing social workers (Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, 2021a, 2021b).
Specifically, new partnerships with allied disciplines and respected foundations allow social work academic programs in every state to invest in marketing to recruit talented new students and secure critical research funding (Rego et al., 2021). Campus–community partnerships, such as social work field education, can be compelling topics for local news broadcasts. Nonprofit organizations often serve as important and valuable news sources for local media and digital channels because they provide a wide variety of services to local communities and frequently interact with other civic institutions and government organizations (Nah, 2006). The voluntary sector helps journalists produce stories about community issues, problems, and solutions.
Social Work Month
The social work profession’s most consistent campaigns to raise public awareness about social workers are the NASW’s National Professional Social Work Month (SocialWorkMonth.org), which is celebrated every March in the United States by NASW, and the International Federation of Social Workers’ (IFSW) World Social Work Day.
Each year, NASW introduces a new theme highlighting a different aspect of social work practice. To help promote the profession throughout March, the nation’s 500 schools of social work, hundreds of hospitals and healthcare systems, K–12 schools, local and national nonprofit organizations, government offices, mental health agencies, and many other allied groups honor local social workers who are making a difference in their communities. The U.S. Congress passes a resolution each year to mark the occasion, and many governors, state legislators, and mayors do the same. The annual Social Work Month campaign garners millions of traditional media and social media mentions, thousands of website downloads, and invaluable public endorsements by professional and advocacy allies. The IFSW’s World Social Work Day campaign functions in the same way across nations and amplifies different approaches to social work around the globe.
These and many other strategic media engagement initiatives are necessary to keep the public invested in the demanding work of social workers (Lee, 2021). In 2020, multiple social crises renewed visibility for the profession as social workers were declared “essential workers” in the fight against COVID-19. To ensure support for social programs and progressive policies that benefit individuals, families, groups, and communities served by trained social workers, the profession must continue to lead efforts to educate and engage the voting public on a range of critical social issues (Conklin et al., 2021).
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