Communicating Creatively

by Jamie Drummond & Roxane Philson
ONE Campaign

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

ONE’s mission is to end the injustice of extreme poverty by 2030. Our strategy to make that happen is forcing governments in countries both north and south of the equator to adopt smart policies that will save and improve millions of lives. We know from experience that governments are more likely to act when pressure comes from both political insiders and the world outside—noisy, popular, public campaigns.

Research confirms that there are about 50 million people in America and Europe (and many millions more across Africa) who care about ending extreme poverty and would do more to make it a reality, given the opportunity. It’s on us to give these people an easy way in. That means reaching them, giving them some means of engagement, and taking them on a journey toward impactful policy-changing actions. That’s the purpose of ONE’s creative and communications strategies.

It is so exciting and challenging to constantly try to find creative ways to reach and engage people—from London to Lagos—and give them the tools to influence political change. Here’s a look at what we have learned (so far):

1. Popularize policy change.

We cut our teeth with a campaign in 2000 for debt relief, captured by the slogan “Drop the debt.” This slogan helped sell a complex issue—third-world debt cancellation—to a young audience and persuade celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Thom Yorke, and Bono to get engaged in something that might otherwise be crushingly dull. The crucial lesson was that a powerful media and popular culture strategy, tied to evidence-based polices directed at real political processes, got results.

Subsequently, we distinguished ourselves through two slogans: “We’re not asking for your money, we’re asking for your voice,” and “We’re about justice, not charity.” These strong, simple declarations with complex implications have driven successful campaigns. 

We used this strategy aggressively in 2005 around the public launch of ONE, and it’s a model we continue to follow whether we are calling for life-saving investments in AIDS medication or for legislation to tackle corruption.

You will see it throughout our central digital property—our website—with its strong, simple, responsive design. But while One.org might be our bedrock, it’s often not what gets people to us. For that, social media has been a revolution ...

2. It’s social, stupid.

Facebook has been critical to introducing people to the issues we tackle and building our base. Last year, we surpassed a million “likes”—an important number, given that Facebook drives nearly half our web traffic and increasing numbers of petition signers. But social isn’t just about the personal connection—it can also get political. Twitter is great for both latching onto a current issue and taking direct political action—the vast majority of our political targets are active tweeters.

3. Don’t forget where you came from.

We love social media, but nothing beats email for action. Our activists are most responsive to calls to action via email, particularly tougher political actions like direct contact with politicians.

4. What works here won’t necessarily work there.

As we increasingly campaign across Africa, we are adapting our tactics. Last year, we launched one of the continent’s biggest musical collaborations: “Cocoa na Chocolate,” a song featuring 19 of Africa’s biggest stars performing in 11 languages. The goal was to inspire young Africans and convey the idea that the future of their continent depends on agriculture. It launched on music channels, web, mobile, and SMS, and we promoted it through social media, radio, and pan-African TV shows like Big Brother Africa.

The song captured public attention; it also pushed a petition calling on African leaders to invest in agriculture. More than two million African citizens signed, overwhelmingly via mobile. We delivered the petition to leaders at the African Union Summit, and seven of our recommendations appeared in the summit declaration. The project worked because we trusted the sensibilities of our African staff and artists to make it authentic and effective.

5. Irrelevance is worse than adaptation.

The beauty and the struggle of the digital world is its ever-changing nature—alongside Facebook and Twitter we must also come to grips with Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine. We must be fast to adapt but slow enough to pick winners—there are only so many platforms an organization can deliver on well. There is no such thing as rinse and repeat—it’s adapt and start again.

6. Change don’t come easy.

The toughest challenge with some digital platforms is finding ways for people to take action. Our Agit8 campaign—aimed at fighting corruption and backed by Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Macklemore & Ryan, and many other musicians—generated more than 10 million YouTube views, but converting people from audience to action-taker wasn’t easy. Going forward, we need to explore how to create actions for a digitally savvy audience that will effectively hit policymakers.

7. Celebrity ain't what it used to be.

With social media, the reach of celebrities has never been stronger, but it has also changed everything. There are A-listers who aren't on any social networks and people we’ve never heard of who can reach millions of people with a single tweet. Teens recognize YouTube stars more than Oscar winners. Digital platforms also demand transparent authenticity and two-way interaction.

Next steps in building the movement that will end extreme poverty

This year, world leaders will agree on a new set of global goals for the next 15 years. Right now, we are reaching out to three important segments—women, youth, and faith—to help build the backbone of a movement that will monitor the implementation of these goals.

Above all, we are focusing the mobilization of the movement around girls and women. All the lessons we’ve learned feed into this. Our data on ONE members shows that our most ardent activists and social media followers are women. Leading figures like Meryl Streep, Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, and Lady Gaga are amplifying our message. Email campaigning on International Womens’ Day this year brought in tens of thousands of petition signers. We used striking images on Instagram to build awareness of the campaign along with strong events and media launches in Germany, South Africa, and the UK. Above all, a striking slogan—#PovertyIsSexist—demanded attention and cut through.

This communications effort, like previous ones, is a means to an end: to activate millions more global citizens, especially women, to come together and form the bedrock of a global monitoring movement, and ensure that we implement the new global goals and keep policy promises, and that every woman and girl survives, thrives, and overcomes extreme poverty by 2030.