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CFSC Analysis and Opinion: Voiceless People Speaking Truth to Power

Jim Hunt, senior adviser of the Consortium, presented during a pre-conference seminar of the Public Relations Society of America's fall conference. In his presentation, Hunt challenged public relations professionals to "ėdo more to confront the realities of power.'

The text that follows is "as written"Ě not as presented.

I'm here today to represent the Communication for Social Change Consortium and Denise Gray-Felder, our founder, president and CEO. We are not a public relations group, although Denise and I have had long careers in PR.  The Consortium is an international network of people and organizations committed to positive social change and a broader role for communication in the process.

Communication for Social Change is a process of public and private dialogue through which people themselves define who they are, what they need and how to get what they need in order to improve their own lives.  It utilizes dialogue that leads to collective problem identification, decision-making and community-based implementation of solutions to development issues.  It is communication in the interest of the people who define what their interests are.  

To us, for communication, including PR, to work for positive social change, we all must do more to confront the realities of power and its effect on what we do.

Much of the money that flows into communication represents money coming from the powerful in order to persuade.  Much less money is spent creating environments in which powerless people can speak and make their own decisions.

To practice in the public interest, our job is to encourage those in power to speak truth.  And to make it possible for voiceless people to speak truth to power.

Jim Grunig's two-way symmetric model of public relations sets mutual understanding as its goal.  It is the best that we have in public relations theory that comes close to defining PR in the public interest and as a potential ally in the fight for positive social change.

Communication for social change takes that many steps further.  It is communication systems, tools and processes owned by people in communities to make their own decisions in support of individual and social change.

It is the kind of communication that led a group of miners in Bolivia to develop their own community radio stations as a source of information and a forum for change.  It is the kind of communication that guides community conversations on HIV-AIDS and poverty; conversations sparked by television soap operas produced by Soul City in South Africa.  It is the kind of communication that helped a citizens' group in Decatur, Illinois confront underlying causes of racism through open and honest dialogue among citizens.

These are all examples of grassroots communication that plays a vital part in redefining what the interest of the public really is.

At the Consortium, we believe it is part of our mission to serve as a bridge between the important work that goes on at the community level and the universities that train communicators and the policy-makers who set the budgets for communication focused on poor communities worldwide.  

We are advocates for a more participatory approach to communication and decision-making.  We want to broaden the role of communication and the communicator, moving beyond a strict reliance on strategies of transmission and diffusion like PR and social marketing.  Most of us would, of course, endorse bottom-up as well as top-down communication. We poll and use focus groups to gauge reaction.  But these are primarily information-gathering and message-shaping activities.

Communication for social change makes use of the other megaforce of communication: interaction and dialogue. ¬†If people learn of things through transmitted messages, they make sense of them through interaction "ď through talk and dialogue. It is through dialogue that people come to understand, as Grunig said. ¬†More importantly, it is through dialogue that people come to create a changed perception "ď and a changed reality for themselves.

The energy and motivation to use communication in this way is present all over the world. ¬†Some of you may have seen the article on the front page of today's NY Times about the flood of first-graders crowding schools in Kenya from all over the region. ¬†What it took to open those doors was the elimination of tuition. But to get to that seemingly simply policy change, years of public and private dialogue happened first; dialogue that allowed people from across society to determine their values about universal primary education. ¬†Communication for social change taps into collective will and energy "ď and a community's motivation to learn and to act.

I mentioned before that we want to serve as a bridge between local efforts and multinational organizations.  What else do we do?  We advocate for communication in the public interest.  We produce resources like the on-line body of knowledge you can find on our website at .  We conduct training and educational programs.  And we practice and consult.

In outline, our approach is straightforward. We use communication to strengthen the voices of poor and marginalized people.  We encourage private and public dialogue.  We support collective action.  And we help people learn to evaluate their progress and report the results so that they can connect their efforts to others working for social change.

I'm sure that the process I have outlined is probably familiar to you.  It represents the communication capacity we have in the developed world, even if we do not make use of it in the public interest the way we could. It is that capacity for communication and change decided on by the public that we want to help strengthen in poorer communities worldwide.

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