“Leveraging Digital Activism in Unexpected Ways”
By Travis Claytor
Editor’s Note: Travis Claytor is a graduate student in the Online Master’s Degree Program in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. This column was written for his class in Public Affairs Communication.
I wanted to take a minute to briefly dive into the digital activism section of class. In my opinion, the assigned reading, response paper, and discussions around digital activism and citizen engagement is an underlying theme in just about everything we’ve discussed.
One of the definitions of “activist” is “using or supporting strong actions in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”
I would submit that any issue, however benign, can be seen as controversial to someone. So, just for a second, let’s broaden the term “activist” to mean anyone who acts in support of or against some issue, brand, message, or campaign.
As we learned in the first week of this class, Public Affairs is defined as the “leadership function that manages risk and creates opportunities by shaping organizational strategy and influencing the socio- political environment to deliver beneficial outcomes for the organization and society.”
And everything we do, from internal initiatives to external campaigns, revolves around the engagement of and communication with various audiences. Our industry is constantly working to get audiences to act. In other words, we’re influencing existing activists to take a specific action, and working to turn non-activists into activists in support of our efforts.
And while offline activities are certainly an important element in these campaigns, various forms of digital channels have become, and remain today, the primary means of communication among most global audiences. As Bob Pearson mentioned during his guest lecture, the average age someone receives a cell phone is 10 years old, so people are conditioned early on to rely on digital channels to communicate across their lives.
The insight is not that we rely on digital channels for communicating with each other, or that all of us can be considered activists. Instead, my insight is that this is not something we should fear as part of our roles as public affairs and/or strategic communications practitioners.
Much of the conversation around digital activism is around what could possibly go wrong with bad actors, instigators, and opponents go on the attack. It’s only natural that we want to know how to protect our brands against these attacks or against risk. In fact, much of the conversation within this class has been around risk, but opportunities are also an important element, and one that we need to pursue.
It’s easy to get lost in the world of possible negative outcomes as it relates to digital activism. It can be scary, and just the discussions put a communicator’s worst nightmare front and center, mainly that everyone has a megaphone and can cause harm.
We shouldn’t take a pessimistic view of digital activism, or activism in a digital age. We should protect against risk but understand that we must take chances to realize the full potential of what this function can offer to the brands and enterprises we represent. As strategic communicators and public affairs practitioners, hopefully as a leadership function, our role is to protect against risk AND leverage opportunities.
Digital channels, used as part of the Public Affairs and Strategic Communications functions, offer brands and businesses their own megaphone. Our job as practitioners is to understand what motivates people, what people we need to motivate, why they do what they do (how they see success), and how to influence them through our campaigns.
Most of us work on small teams where resources can be minimal, and time is scarce. Most of us, at one point or another, are simply trying to tread water and not get in over our heads. That leads to being reactive and focusing on tactics instead of strategy. I know I’ve been there more than once, and for long periods of time.
My advice to others, especially younger professionals, is to force yourself to take a step back and think of things strategically, especially as it relates to potential risks and issues and crisis scenarios, which the practice of Public Affairs often includes.
Remember that we have everything we need right at our fingertips. We need to think strategically, use the tools, including data, at our disposal, focus on purpose and value, and execute to benefit both brands and communities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Travis Claytor, APR
President & Owner, TC Strategic Communications
After nearly two decades of developing and executing public relations campaigns, Travis launched TC Strategic Communications, which combines a passion for strategic solutions with integrated communications to engage audiences and produce real business results.
Valuing continuing education, and always committed to pushing himself, Travis also has returned to the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications to pursue a master’s degree in mass communications, with a global strategic communications specialization.