I’m often asked ‘why’. ‘Why’ would anyone leave a successful job as a television reporter? ‘Why’ would I leave that successful job in favour of social justice? And ‘why’ would I choose to work at a homeless shelter when I could work in television?
It’s true, I did enjoy my former job. Working as a television journalist for Global or CTV News had its benefits: adrenaline, acknowledgement, respect, meeting powerful people, and – most importantly – talking about issues that matter. Work life meant forest fires, floods, politics, crime and even the occasional mudslide. It meant covering crucial issues that affect people in real time, responding with empathy, and using my platform to inform the public which – by extension – may inspire action or positive change.
Working as a reporter, though, had its limitations. Journalism carries the responsibility of objectivity and neutrality whereas advocacy offers opportunity to entice and influence. I knew the time would eventually come where I would favour the latter. The question was, when and how?
Video storytelling was my answer. Apart from my career as a journalist, I began experimenting with documentary work for charities. I traveled with major non-profits like Save the Children and Samaritan’s Purse, documenting the success of their life-saving programs and introducing donors to the people their donated dollars were impacting. It was exhilarating.
Finally, I decided to move into public relations full time with Union Gospel Mission, where I now advocate for Vancouver’s homeless, raise awareness about the organization, and (hopefully) inspire the general public to join in. It’s not easy, in fact, it’s extremely difficult. But my experience as a journalist has taught me a few tips on how to communicate your cause clearly to a public that is wildly inundated with information.
1) Keep it simple. Craft one main message and don’t stop repeating it. Repeat it until you can’t repeat it anymore and then repeat it again. Yes, you will feel like a broken record. Yes, you will tire of your own words. But the average person is so bombarded with competing information they’ll only give your communique a passing glance anyway. Reporting taught me that, no matter how complex my story was, the average viewer would only absorb one key takeaway. If your message isn’t clear and simple, it won’t resonate. Craft one main message, keep it consistent, and hammer away.
2) Connect on common ground through emotion. Not everyone is going to care about our causes. Not everyone understands the underlying context or challenges we face in our fight for social justice. But they do understand one thing: emotion. The average person can’t truly imagine what it’s like to be a victim of human trafficking, but they know what it’s like to be scared. They can’t truly understand what it’s like to be homeless, but they do understand what it’s like to feel hopeless. Whether you’re talking to a friend over coffee, presenting to an audience at an event, or speaking to the media, make sure to emphasize emotion in every paragraph.
One of my first documentary shoots in the Democratic Republic of Congo
3) Connect their passion to your purpose. If you want to reach a new audience with your message, if you want to inspire new people to champion your cause, it’s best to start with something they already know and love. Don’t waste your time trying to convince someone to care about something they’ve never thought about before. Rather, convince them their current passion is already connected to your purpose. Need an example? At UGM we recently unveiled a hiking program that helps people overcome addiction and homelessness. Rather than attempting to convince hikers to care about homelessness, we produced a documentary that showed how nature (something they already love and care about) is helping our guests exit homelessness. Once they connected their passion to our purpose, enlisting their help was much easier.
In summary, I still work around emergencies every day. They might not be as visible as a mudslide or burning building, but they’re no less urgent. Social issues like poverty and homelessness are destroying people, families and communities each day. They’re burning down hope and reducing opportunity to a pile of rubble. I get to work to prevent that now. And through the few simple steps I’ve outlined above, I’m able to apply my communications experience as a reporter to social justice. Hopefully it will help you put out some fires too.