Moving Pictures, Moving Mountains: A Primer on Using Video in Advocacy Campaigns

Gillian Caldwell, Executive Director, Witness

This essay is written for those who are interested in using videos to promote a cause or to launch an advocacy campaign around a human rights issue.

In 1995 I was an attorney doing civil rights work in Washington, DC. A friend returned from a trip to Siberia where he had been investigating the illegal trade in Siberian tiger pelts. He recounted that while undercover, and in the midst of discussions on a "sale," traffickers had offered to sell him women. He asked me if I wanted to help him do something about it. I said I would spend some time researching the issue and get back to him. Two weeks later I resigned from my job and pitched up at his office, telling him that I would wait tables if necessary until we obtained the financial backing to launch a campaign against the illegal trafficking of women for forced prostitution out of Russia.

And so, my adventure in video advocacy began. It resulted in the production of the film Bought & Sold, a documentary based on our investigation. Bought and Sold received widespread media coverage, including the BBC, CNN, ABC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. It garnered international attention and impacted the fight against the trafficking of women in Russia and elsewhere.

My experience using video as an integral part of an advocacy campaign confirmed my conviction that it can be a compelling and effective tool to affect social change. Video as advocacy can:

  • Elicit a powerful emotional response from audiences
  • Connect viewers to personal stories, bringing testimonial voices to new audiences
  • Help illustrate stark visual contrasts
  • Provide direct visual evidence of abuses
  • Help build coalitions with other groups in the campaign
  • Reach a wide range of people as it does not require literacy to convey information
  • Help counter stereotypes
  • Help a campaign to reach new, different and multiple audiences, particularly if it is widely distributed
  • Help diversify the face of an issue
  • Be used in segments of varying lengths for different purposes

Many activists are interested in incorporating media into their advocacy work to deepen and/or broaden the effectiveness of a given campaign. When thinking how to best do this, there are important questions activists should ask themselves and strategies they should consider. Using my experience as a guide, I will discuss what I believe these major questions and strategies to be. In the sidebar, A Case Study: Doing Our Homework for Bought and Sold, my partner and I weigh in on some of these issues as we developed our campaign around Bought and Sold.

A Case Study:
Doing Our Homework for Bought and Sold

Trafficking in women for forced prostitution had been going on for centuries. But in 1995, trafficking out of Russia into Asia, Western Europe and the U.S. was a new and growing business in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall. We hoped that a campaign focused on an area of strategic interest to the United States, i.e., the former Soviet Bloc, and the introduction of powerful undercover investigative video, would garner fresh attention for the problem on a global level.

Our Objectives

Our first goal was to address a fundamental ignorance about the scope and dimensions of the human trafficking industry. Overall, we wanted to educate government and a broader public about the issue.

A second goal was to campaign for laws and law enforcement responses to trafficking that would ensure that women were fairly treated in the legal process. We wanted to be sure they were offered adequate support in a language they could understand, that they were provided a stay of deportation and time to consider whether to provide testimony against the trafficking rings, that they were offered witness protection where necessary, and that they received assistance to meet basic needs in terms of housing, counseling, health care and other support once trafficking was identified as the underlying problem.

A third goal was to increase funding to support locally-based initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe that could provide education, counseling, and support to women at risk or caught in the trafficking system.

Who we were trying to influence

We had numerous target audiences in mind when we started out. We wanted to reach a global international public, women at risk for recruitment, non-governmental organizations working to educate people about the problem, government authorities around the world, and intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations.

Our advocacy styles and strengths

We were a small, under-funded start-up in the process of applying for nonprofit status. There were two of us working together on an ambitious multi-national campaign – and my colleague was only working part-time on it. We had no reputation or experience in the national or international community regarding the issue. It was clear from the outset that we would need to take a highly collaborative approach to our work. There was no sense reinventing the wheel; rather, we drew on strong groundwork that had been laid by international coalitions such as the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women. The international community was very receptive to our requests for interviews and information; we rarely encountered 'territorial' behavior among the nonprofit organizations we contacted.

The strength of the material we researched, the insatiable media interest in it, and the added credibility we gained by recruiting several well-placed strategists and experts as part of our advisory committee, opened the necessary doors. By the fall of 1997 we had the ear of top advisors in the Clinton administration and helped them craft the first multi-agency task force on trafficking. We were also able to work with our colleagues in the movement to draft a resolution for the late Senator Paul Wellstone, which became the basis for a later bi-partisan Trafficking Victims Protection Act that passed Congress in 2000. And we served as the key implementing partner for the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundation on a regional initiative to train, fund and support NGOs to work on trafficking.

What others were doing to combat trafficking in women; what worked, what didn't and why.

We researched and communicated with dozens of key organizations already working around the world to address the problem, and we learned from their experiences.
Our research revealed that while other documentaries had been produced on trafficking with a focus on the practice in Southeast Asia and Latin America, those films had not generated adequate responses on a national or international level. We believed that a documentary that highlighted the experience of Caucasian women trafficked from Russia would generate greater public attention and visibility within U.S. government circles, whom we could then educate regarding the broader global problem. We identified some gaps in the advocacy work being done in the United States, and we concluded that we had an opportunity to bring new attention to the issue using video that initially focused on another part of the world.

What are your advocacy objectives?

What problems are you trying to solve? What solutions will you be recommending? Are changes in the legal system are required, or is the campaign addressing the failure of a system to enforce or comply with existing regulations? In most cases, there will be national as well as international laws, treaties and conventions that prohibit the abuses you have identified, and the focus of your campaign will be on documenting and highlighting the violations taking place and pressuring the appropriate bodies to take action to stop the abuse. It is in bringing an abuse to light, and presenting it powerfully to key audiences, that video can play an important role.

Who are you trying to influence?

It is important to identify your target audiences at the outset of any campaign; it is no less true when you are planning to use video. A basic premise of any communications strategy is that you need a clear, simple message, and that you identify your target audience before you craft the message.

What are your advocacy styles and strengths?

Another important step is to assess where your strengths lie. Do you work best in coalitions or independently? Who are your key allies? Are you a formally organized non-governmental organization (NGO) or a grassroots movement? Do you have access to grassroots communities that can be mobilized, or do you have credibility and access to the halls of power? Do you use a litigation-based approach, a popular protest strategy, a lobbying strategy, or some combination thereof?

Analyze the current advocacy work being done on the problem you have identified, both within your organization and by others. What has worked? What hasn't worked? And why?

It is important to get a sense of the "landscape" surrounding the issue you want to address. Very few successful advocacy campaigns occur in isolation – many individuals and organizations, often from different parts of the world, play a role in influencing the course of events. The more tactical and collaborative you are in your thinking about problems and solutions, the more likely you are to succeed.

What type media is appropriate for your campaign?

The documentary, presented in its entirety or in parts, is a form of media presentation that can be used for many purposes. Raw, unedited footage has many uses as well, as do public service announcements (PSAs). The form of media that is appropriate for your campaign will be determined by the focus of the campaign, the nature of your organization and the resources with which you have to work.

How will you use video in the campaign?

Once you have identified your key audiences, your advocacy goals, and crafted your message, you can prepare a distribution plan. You should do this, at least in draft form, before you go about acquiring or producing media, as it will, like everything discussed above, inform your choices. The following examples are effective ways that media in various forms can be integrated into advocacy work:

  • Community screenings: Whether for the purpose of educating the general public or organizing groups that support your work, documentaries used in this context are most successful when you have existing relationships with grassroots networks that can provide distribution channels. You should develop accompanying screening materials such as information packets, handbooks or manuals for the screenings. You should also develop guidelines for facilitators moderating pre- and post-screening discussions and/or an action pack for audiences.

  • Streaming video on the internet: Uploading footage to the internet provides exciting opportunities for advocacy work. This can be an effective way to reach audiences working in solidarity with you in other countries or to reach a diaspora or exile population. Your efforts will have greater impact if you also provide background materials, relevant links and resources, and a call to action. (See the Rights Alert webcasting initiative on the WITNESS website for Bear in mind that, presently, viewers must have high-speed internet connections in order to stream video on their computers, which limits your audience to varying extents depending on where you are located.

  • Screenings for government or NGO decision makers: Showing focused, action-oriented video to a key government committee, NGO or business decision maker may be critical to your cause. Many top decision makers do not regularly hear the voices of those directly affected by human rights abuses. Bringing these voices to their attention can be powerful when combined with supplementary information and models for action. It isn't always the number of eyes that see a video that makes a difference -- but rather which ones.

  • Video submitted as evidence to a national court, regional body, or international tribunal: Raw footage can be used as evidence in a court of law. To meet admissibility criteria you must accurately record as much auxiliary information and context as possible, e.g., time and date of shoot, name of videographer, location of recording, etc. The WITNESS website provides information on how to shoot to for this purpose. Be aware that national laws vary regarding admissibility requirements; it is not always easy to use video in this way.

  • Submitting video reports before a UN treaty body, special rapporteur or working group: Video reports for the UN or other inter-governmental bodies can be structured in a variety of ways: as a documentary on the particular issue; as a complement to a shadow report submitted to an UN treaty oversight committee; as direct, unedited testimonials by victims of a violation; and as raw footage of a violation or event. In most cases you will want to provide written documentation and other material submissions, linking the video content directly to the submissions. This approach requires that you organize screenings along with question and answer periods to more fully inform your audience.

  • Public service announcements: A 30-90 second message can be an effective tool to mobilize a broad audience around an issue. It is a good idea to identify potential outlets for broadcast or widespread distribution through a civil society network before you commit resources to producing a PSA.

  • Broadcast and public screenings: Documentary storytelling can be an effective way to educate a wide international and domestic public via broadcast and public screenings. Achieving such exposure, however, can be a challenge. If you do not have a potential broadcast outlet that will reach a relevant public, consider whether the potential benefits are worth the investment. A broadcast on a minor channel, or one that is not targeted to a key audience, may not be worth the effort unless you and your network are prepared to submit substantial time and energy to coordinating screenings and events where the film can be seen.

  • Video as source for news broadcast, and used as b-roll (supplementary material): High-quality raw footage of a violation can at times be the only visual record available to a larger public, or can provide a unique, otherwise unavailable story. For this outlet you must provide copies of your raw footage to local, regional, national and international broadcast outlets in a packaged format, showing the highlights, and provide background information as well as potential spokespeople. The feasibility of getting footage on local news will vary according to location. Generally speaking, getting footage aired on international broadcasts is usually difficult. You may also try to place raw footage on television as b-roll (visuals that accompany a story) for inclusion in related stories. Used in this way, your advocacy intent and narrative thrust might not be apparent in the newscast.

How will you obtain the visual media that you need for your campaign?

This decision should be informed by a thorough consideration of your campaign goals – including how you intend to use the media, and the strengths, resources and nature of your organization.

Of the numerous ways to access media to support your campaign, producing a film in-house is the most ambitious as it requires a large commitment of time and money. Most filmmakers shoot more than 80 hours of raw footage to produce a one-hour documentary. If you choose this route, be sure to prepare a detailed shot list prior to shooting and prepare well for interviews, in order to reduce the amount of raw footage you will need to complete your film. Organizations new to filmmaking will be learning the craft as they are simultaneously deepening their knowledge of the subject. Generally speaking, it is often larger and more established organizations that choose to produce their own videos.

Another approach is to collaborate with a filmmaker who is making a film about the topic of concern. In this situation your organization would provide institutional and/or financial support for the project. If your campaign requires a PSA you would do well to collaborate with someone experienced in the field of commercials and publicity. Finally, a perfectly good option for an organization with limited resources is to purchase or rent an existing film on message.

* * *

In summary, start-ups and individuals should research well and collaborate as much as possible. If yours is an established NGO, your style and reputation may precede you, which will help define your approach to using video in your advocacy work. If your constituency is grassroots, consider drawing on that strength to produce something that can be used to educate and activate a broader audience. If you tend to have more influence with well-placed officials and governing bodies, consider developing a piece that would educate, inform and motivate them towards your intended goal. And regardless of the scale and nature of your organization and focus of your campaign – remember to dream.



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