Adapt or perish: the new normal for civil society?


One of the primary tactics governments are using to repress civil society is the stigmatization of activists and organizations. As such narratives have gained traction, donors and civil society leaders have come to realize that they cannot take public support for granted, notes Shannon N. Green, director and senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

There is a growing consensus that developing positive narratives and conducting strategic communications campaigns are crucial elements of the pushback against closing space. Yet, CSOs (and the donors who support them) need to approach messaging with the same degree of sophistication and rigor that marketing or advertising firms apply to selling products and services, she writes for Open Democracy:

First, the message must come from a credible messenger. Social science research has shown that if the messenger is not viewed as trustworthy or authentic, attempts to provide corrective information that counters strongly held views will likely be ignored, or worse, harden those views.

Second, the message must be compelling and framed in a way that will resonate with the target audience. It is not enough for a message to appeal to someone’s values and emotions—it must also emphasize opportunities for action or other solutions in order to be effective. Finally, the message must be crafted with a specific audience in mind and disseminated on platforms that will maximize the likelihood that target groups consume the message.

As restrictions on foreign funding, barriers to registration, intervention in CSOs’ internal affairs, and other forms of harassment become the new normal, donors and civil society are going to have to adapt to survive, Green adds:

A key component of building the resilience and sustainability of the sector must be to help CSOs build public support for their work and for the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression that underpin their operations. Evidence-based and data-driven strategic communications campaigns are not a silver bullet and will not, alone, turn the tide of closing space. However, investing in such efforts can help improve the efficacy and overall image of civil society, making it harder for governments to crack down on CSOs without provoking a public backlash.


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