Media Advocacy 101

Definition

Media advocacy is the strategic use of mass media to support community organizers' efforts to advance social or public health policies.

Purpose

The purpose of media advocacy is to put pressure on policymakers by mobilizing community groups and improving news coverage of health issues. It is not an attempt to overhaul the mass media but rather to change specific policies that influence health.

Unlike with other forms of health communications, media advocacy focuses on the environmental context for health outcomes and looks to policy as the mechanism for changing them. Most health communicators target individuals with information on what they can do to avoid illness or injury or treat a problem they already have. Media advocates instead target policy makers and those who can be mobilized to influence them since they can control the environments that either promote health or foster disease.


Delivering the keynote address for the 2008 True Spin Conference in Denver, BMSG's director Lori Dorfman explains our approach to media advocacy, why message is never first, and what public health advocates need to know about framing.

Background

Media advocacy began in the 1980s as a product of increasing collaboration between public health groups and public interest and consumer advocates working on health and social issues. It was a key strategy used to advance policies developed by tobacco control advocates and those working to reduce alcohol-related problems. The strategy has since been adopted more widely, with advocates using it to limit sugar-sweetened beverages in schools, increase access to safe places for people to be physically active, reform hospital policies to support breastfeeding, increase support for affordable housing, and many other public health goals.

Case studies

Issue 3: Oakland shows the way

In the late 90s, the Oakland, Calif.-based Coalition on Alcohol Outlet Issues used media advocacy to impose a one-year moratorium on new alcohol outlets located in low-income areas. This case study offers examples of media advocacy strategies and shows how reducing Oakland's alcohol-related problems required rethinking over time.

Issue 16: Moving from head to heart: Using media advocacy to talk about affordable housing

This is the story of how a group of affordable housing advocates learned to tell their story so it reflected their values and resonated with policy makers. What they thought would be a simple refresher course in working with the media transformed their own understanding of affordable housing, how to talk about it, and, ultimately, what was done about it.

Additional resources

News for a change: An advocates' guide to working with the media
This workbook-style guide offers practical applications for social theory. It provides advocates with concrete, step-by-step instructions for using the power of the media and community organizing to improve their social change efforts.

Working upstream: Skills for social change [pdf]

Degree-granting public health programs generally do not provide systematic training in advocacy and social change. In the absence of such formal training, BMSG worked with professor Susan Sorenson and dean Lawrence Wallack to develop a curriculum and resource guide that public health programs could adapt and use to teach social advocacy. This guide will also help public health practitioners to bridge the gap between research and practice and use their findings to inform policymakers and influence policy development.

Making the case for early care and education: A message development guide for advocates [pdf]
Written to help the national child care community communicate effectively with journalists, this guide summarizes public opinion and media research on child care and provides a menu of tested messages for advocates. It is modeled on a similar document created in the 1980s by the Advocacy Institute for the National Cancer Institute to assist tobacco-control advocates.

Bucking tobacco sponsorship at rodeos: Strategies for media advocacy and public engagement [pdf]
BMSG developed this media advocacy plan to help advocates do two things: 1) to counter the tobacco industry's aggressive marketing at family sporting events; and 2) to recast tobacco marketing as an irresponsible industry tactic rather than a children's issue.

For more case studies, see Oxford Encyclopedia entry "media advocacy" and Working Upstream Appendix A: Vignettes & lessons from public health advocacy, p237.

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