Date disclosure: I’m publishing this blog post on Jan. 27, 2013 (within a week of the publication of the study), rather than Sept. 7, 2012, as the permalink suggests. I had to change the date on my dashboard because I included a link to this blog post in the author note portion of the study when submitting this manuscript last September, and I had to backdate this blog post for the link to work.
I partnered with UO doctoral student Erica Ciszek to discover how advocacy organizations attempt to influence stigmatizing portrayals of vulnerable populations and how they build exigence among their supporters and the cultural producers they attempt to influence.
I chose a mental health organization, and Erica Ciszek chose an LGBT organization to study, both of which have impressive records of achievement in this area. We interviewed three people for this study and conducted a thematic analysis of the alerts the organizations use to educate, update and mobilize supporters.
Our study was published this week as a “research in brief” in Public Relations Review. It was hard for us to decide whether to cut our research study down to a short summary or whether to take our chances with the full manuscript at another journal. Unfortunately, the journal does not accept visual models for research in brief articles, but the good news is that I can share it freely here: pdf of the cultural byproducts advocacy model.
We call it the cultural byproducts advocacy model because it is a model that describes how advocacy organizations attempt to influence cultural byproducts. Why do we use the term “cultural byproducts?” People who contribute to stigma are not necessarily trying to do so. Often times, the point is to entertain, but the route the cultural producer chooses is one that involves stigmatizing a vulnerable group. Stigma, then, can be an unintentional result of a cultural producer’s creation.
If you’re familiar with the work of Kenneth Burke, you’ll recognize that we have diagrammed the process that organizations use to influence cultural producers by using Burke’s redemption ritual. (Many thanks to one of my mentors at the University of Maryland, Jim Klumpp, for teaching me about Burke.) We have added to the model by noting where public relations efforts fit into the model and what organizations should do at every stage of the redemption ritual.
The cultural byproducts advocacy model
Burke’s first stage is the social order. Any time there is a social order, people will break the rules. In the context of our study, breaking the rules happens when cultural producers stigmatize a vulnerable population, even if they don’t mean to do so.
When a cultural producer violates the social order by engaging in questionable behavior, an advocacy organization creates pollution by trying to establish that the cultural producer did something wrong. Advocacy organizations can use facework by reaching out to the cultural producer privately and taking an approach as if the cultural producer did not know any better. To strengthen the argument that the producer has violated norms of social responsibility, research, facts and narratives are used to demonstrate the danger of stigma and the vulnerability of the group.
The advocacy organization’s goal at this point is to get the cultural producer to experience guilt. If no guilt is experienced, the advocacy organization will create a call to action and alert its supporters, who will express their thoughts to the cultural producer (and sometimes the corresponding advertisers) through petitions, emails, phone calls, or some combination of these avenues.
If there is sufficient pollution, the cultural producer will experience guilt. Guilt results in the next stage, which is purification. The cultural producer needs to deal with the guilt through purification, and a cultural producer will do this through one of two ways.
As explained by Burke, someone can deal with guilt through victimage by blaming outside forces for the problem. In the context of this study, victimage would include blaming the organization and its supporters for being hypersensitive (i.e., I didn’t intend it that way, and you shouldn’t be taking it that way).
An advocacy organization’s use of facework and a strategic construction of the vulnerable group will hopefully result in Burke’s other way to achieve purification, which is through mortification. A cultural producer uses mortification to achieve purification by taking responsibility.
If the cultural producer achieves redemption through mortification, he or she will be an ally. Some cultural producers have become financial contributors, and some have shared scripts in advance for the organizations’ feedback. If the cultural producer achieves redemption through victimage, a further distancing with the advocacy organization occurs, and the producer becomes more insulated from future audience complaints.
Why this topic matters, insights from other organizations and parts of our discussion section
We had to cut our introduction and literature review, as well as major parts of the discussion from the research in brief, but the upside to that is we get to include these parts of the study here.
Why the topic matters
Eight recent studies concluded that the media’s negative portrayals of people with a mental illness influence other people’s opinions (Edney, 2004). In fact, news media depictions can be so compelling that they can be a stronger source for opinions than people’s personal interactions provide (Edney, 2004). Some entertainment media producers also generate stigma. Research reveals the destruction that can result from stigma in the media. Half of the participants in a survey of people with a mental illness indicated that the media harmed their mental health, and 34% reported that this effect amplified their anxiety and depression (BBC News Online, 2000). Furthermore, watching negative depictions of mental illness can erode a healthy self-concept: “It is difficult to feel good about yourself when confronted by constant messages that people such as yourself are flawed, disapproved of, and disliked” (Wahl, 1997, p. 106).
The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has also struggled for accurate visibility in the mainstream media. For much of history, representations of LGBT people in the mainstream media had been virtually absent, which rhetorically diminished the identity group and cast them as outsiders (see Rossman, 2000). In the 1960s, the silence was broken by spotty, hostile coverage; for example, a front-page headline in The New York Times read, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern” (Gross, 2001). During the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and 1990s, negative news coverage about the LGBT community increased (Gross, 2001). Because of negligent coverage of AIDS and due to the homophobia of some reporters, the AIDS epidemic contributed to a moral panic and stigma of the gay community (Bell, 2006; Goh, 2008). However, the coverage of AIDS brought an end to gay invisibility in the mainstream media (Gross, 2001). Most recently, scholars have been interested in the effects of the polemic discourses in the media during LGBT marriage debates (Rostosky, Riggle, Horne & Miller, 2009).
The media present social constructions of reality (L’Etang, 2012) that can harm members of vulnerable identity groups. Several studies have documented the link between media representations and stigma, particularly pertaining to the gay and lesbian community (e.g., Corrigan & Matthews, 2003; Herek, 2009; Herek, Gillis & Cogan, 2009; Meyer, 2003) and the mental illness community (e.g., Caputo & Rouner, 2011; Corrigan, 2005; Henson et al., 2009; Klin & Lemish, 2008; Thompson, 2010; Wall, 1997).
Thus, it is important for advocacy organizations to focus on changing stigmatizing representations by the media and by other cultural producers. It provides a significant contribution to the public relations literature by providing a general model that advocacy organizations can use to influence cultural producers. In addition, this study documents the ways in which advocacy organizations have successfully convinced mass communicators to change their stigmatizing representations.
Mental illness, LGBT and language
Language provides the vehicle through which meaning is constructed and carried out. Therefore, the way cultural producers represent mental illness and topics involving the LGBT community can influence the meaning that is generated. Blumer’s (1969) symbolic interactionism provides a framework for understanding the way meaning emerges out of social interaction. According to a basic tenet of the theory, meaning is derived from the social interaction that one has with others and society. In this way, meaning is a social product that is created and “grows out” of the ways in which “other persons act toward the person with regard to the thing,” and it is precisely these actions that “operate to define the thing for the person” (p. 4). Through images and discourses in the media of particular individuals and groups, cultural producers establish and spread representations that are then ascribed meaning. While cultural content affirms worldviews, it simultaneously subverts alternatives (Burke, 1966). “By its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Burke, 1966, p. 45).
Efforts to change cultural byproducts in the media
Many social organizations have concerned themselves with monitoring and mediating representations of their publics in the media. The legal system is not an efficacious approach for influencing media content (Heinke & Tremain, 2000); however, organizations have successfully used public relations methods (e.g., Aoki, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Rossman, 2000).
In 1999, ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition to advance the cause of diversity in the entertainment industry (National Latino Media Council [NLMC], 2009). The Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition is comprised of the National Latino Media Council (NLMC), the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Asian/Pacific American Media Coalition, and the American Indians in Film and Television. As part of the memorandum of understanding, the networks developed programs to assist individuals and promote diversity in the areas of acting, writing, directing, and production (National Latino Media Council [NLMC], 2010). The advocacy organizations that are a part of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition utilize a common set of strategies and tactics to influence cultural production.
Build coalitions. One strategy is to engage in coalition building (Aoki, 2000; Charren, 2000). For example, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) engaged in coalition building to protest “Rising Sun,” a movie that portrays Japanese businessmen as unethical people who are focused on conquering the United States both economically and politically (Aoki, 2000). MANAA’s coalition included 16 civil rights organizations and community groups, including Asian American organizations and non-Asian American organizations. The president explained, “Our feeling has always been that our cause gains credibility when non-Asians join us in our fight” (Aoki, 2000, p. 31). Coalition building is especially important given the following comment from a vice president of program practices at CBS:
The advocacy group universe is so fragmented and splintered that just when you think you have come to an agreement, a different “chapter” or “region” decries the settlement, arguing that its membership was not consulted. …We cannot listen to every fragmented and splintered entity that calls something to our attention, each of which requires – or demands – a different response. (Altieri, 2000, p. 126)
Empower supporters. A second strategy is to help supporters engage in advocacy. Organizations using this strategy can issue a call to action to supporters in which tactics such as boycotts and letter writing are employed (Montgomery, 1989; Rossman, 2000; Watson & Corrigan, 2005). At minimum, a count is made of the letters, and some are read (Johnson, 2000). An example of a boycott occurred when the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the NAACP promoted a two-week viewing boycott of national television in response to the release of the major networks’ fall television line-ups in 1999 (National Association of the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], 2009).
Pekurny (2000) argued, however, that boycotts are no longer effective due to the fragmented nature of television audiences and because media companies are diversified with their holdings. The Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of Disney/ABC due to the corporation’s same-sex domestic partners policy and media content has failed to affect Disney’s economic performance, as shown through Disney’s quarterly earnings reports. Boycotts can actually improve ratings, which occurred when a television viewer organized a boycott campaign against “Married With Children.” A head of policy and standards for ABC who had 35 years of industry experience added that the negative publicity that can result from a boycott mattered more to ABC than the actual boycott itself (Schneider, 2000), and a former FCC commissioner expressed the same opinion (Johnson, 2000).
Organizations can also encourage supporters to target a media shows’ advertisers, which can be effective (Montgomery, 1989; Watson & Corrigan, 2005). In addition, organizations can use the strategy of empowering supporters by inviting them to report problematic media representations. For example, MANAA has a 24-hour hotline for supporters to report media representations (Aoki, 2000).
Assess media representations. A third strategy is to evaluate and critique the status of media representations of the organization’s public (Aoki, 2000; Rossman, 2000). A tactic for employing this strategy is a state of the media report. Such reports provide a benchmark and assessment of the climate in the media as it pertains to representations of the organization’s public. For example, the National Latino Media Council’s TV Network Report Card (2010) is an annual diversity report that serves as a barometer of the current state of Latinos in the media. Recently, the NLMC “lauded the networks for incremental progress in diversifying their workforces in front and behind the camera”; however, one year later, the report revealed that the networks are “in need of reaffirming their commitments to including Latinos in creative positions and procurement opportunities” (para 1). These assessments provide feedback to supporters regarding the effectiveness of the organization’s efforts in influencing cultural production, and the assessments can be used to reward and pressure media networks.
Another tactic that represents the strategy of assessing media representations is to post negative reviews about a media product and influence media coverage. For example, the MANAA president posted negative reviews in his newspaper column about “Rising Sun” (Aoki, 2000). MANAA was also successful in influencing media coverage about the film. Before the movie debuted, news coverage suggested the movie was racist, and the interviews with the stars of the movie when the film debuted were focused on the controversy (Aoki, 2000). The movie cost approximately $40 million and grossed $62 million; in fact, it only made a profit through overseas movie consumption and home video rentals and sales, which MANAA considered to be a great success (Aoki, 2000).
Collaborate with cultural producers. A fourth strategy is to work with cultural producers, which is not always effective (Aoki, 2000; Rossman, 2000). For example, Fox repeatedly cancelled meetings with MANAA regarding “Rising Sun,” and an inside source told MANAA’s board of directors later that the studio’s strategy was to continue to hold up meetings with the advocacy organization, believing that the issue would then disappear (Aoki, 2000). MANAA formed a coalition with other civil rights groups and asked Fox to include a statement at the film’s beginning that would discourage hate crimes, hire consultants for future films about Asians or Asian Americans, and hire additional Asian Americans in influential positions at Fox; however, Fox refused these demands (Aoki, 2000). Nevertheless, meetings can be an effective tactic for working with cultural producers (Baehr, 2000; Charren, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Pekurny, 2000; Schneider, 2000). Lunch meetings work well because they do not significantly cut into media executives’ time (Pekurny, 2000). As described by Montgomery (1989), organizations should follow the approach used by the Gray Panthers Media Watch Task Force, which is a social justice organization focused on aging issues. This organization approaches cultural producers as if they do not know any better.
There are several approaches advocacy organizations should consider for meetings with network executives. One approach is to encourage media executives to sympathize with the advocacy organization’s supporters by helping them to see the effect of the portrayal on individuals: “Arguing about masses of generic, unspecified viewers whose faces and lives the writer cannot conjure up in his or her mind will have less effect than painting a picture of one individual reacting as a human being” (Pekurny, 2000, p. 111). Another approach is to attempt to convince executives during meetings that requested changes can improve the media’s market position by increasing the audience size (Rossman, 2000). In addition, advocacy organizations can make appeals based on what would be the most dramatically effective or comedic. In one case, a group of writers for “Happy Days” agreed to spend five minutes coming up with a better joke than one that was potentially harmful, and the group succeeded in doing so (Pekurny, 2000). Action for Children’s Television (ACT) discovered that adapting appeals to the executives’ beliefs and values was a successful approach (Hendershot, 1998).
A friendly approach during meetings with executives tends to result in more changes to media programming than a hostile approach for several reasons, as described by Rossman (2000). Media executives do not like being told what to do. Also, a hostile approach tends to result in an artistic freedom defense; plus, there is pressure by media executives’ colleagues to not “cave in” to an advocacy group’s demands for fear of being viewed as “spineless” by their peers (p. 95). Some experts advise advocacy organizations to compromise with executives (Pekurny, 2000; Montgomery, 1989).
When an organization expresses concerns persuasively, networks sometimes invite the organizations to provide script consultation, which is an action that the National Education Association effectively used for portrayals of teachers (Montgomery, 1989). Panels of the organizations’ members reviewed every script for the show Mr. Novac, which was about a young teacher. However, sometimes script consultations do not work because networks are not willing to make major compromises, and even when consultations do work, sometimes publics still react negatively to episodes. For example, The Gray Panthers Media Watch Task Force defended an episode of Lou Grant about abuses in nursing homes because it had provided script consultation, although some members of its key public were offended by the episode.
Another method for working with cultural producers is to cultivate individual relationships with people who are sympathetic to the organization’s cause and are willing to reveal internal information. For example, MANAA received secret copies of the “Rising Sun” script and received script revisions, which enabled MANAA to engage in media relations four months ahead of the movie’s release (Aoki, 2000).
In addition, advocacy organizations can work with cultural producers by providing a media guide for how to handle language and stereotypes that are related to the group (Montgomery, 1989; Rossman, 2000). They can also offer workshops and seminars, and they can send mailings to the Writers Guild of America membership or the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors (Altieri, 2000; Pekurny, 2000). Another outreach method is to provide contact names and numbers for representatives of the advocacy organization who can quickly answer questions when consulted by phone (Pekurny, 2000).
Reward cultural producers. A fifth strategy that is used by some organizations is to recognize cultural producers after moments of production (Aoki, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Hendershot, 1998). Some organizations, such as MANAA, involve their supporters by inviting them to report praiseworthy depictions (Aoki, 2000). A tactic used by the Christian Film and Television Commission (through its Movieguide subsidiary), MANAA, and NAACP is to hold award ceremonies for “those specific media portrayals that are exemplary in reflecting the world in a way that is in sync with an advocacy group’s ideology” (Rossman, 2000, p. 93). Some writers and producers can be motivated to include certain content in their programming with the hope of obtaining an award (Pekurny, 2000). For example, an entry-level staff writer might aim for an award because an agent could use it to negotiate a better package on a current or different television show (Pekurny, 2000). Organizations can also send letters of praise to cultural producers (Rossman, 2000).
More needs to be learned about how advocacy organizations can influence cultural producers. This study contributes to the literature by investigating how advocacy organizations influence cultural byproducts.
(Here, you can read the parts of our discussion section that we couldn’t fit into the research in brief version.)
RQ 1: Process for influencing representations. The first research question contributes a process for understanding how to successfully influence cultural byproducts, including the presentation of criteria for determining whether and how cases of cultural byproducts should be prioritized. Although the process does not always result in an apology and behavioral change by the cultural producer, it has resulted in many changes to the cultural landscape regarding mental illness and LGBT issues. The organizations’ process and resulting successes provide empirical support for recommendations that call for advocacy organizations to initiate contact and lead with symmetrical strategies, followed by pressure tactics if the cultural producer does not cooperate (J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 1997). In this way, both organizations appear to adopt the same approach that is recommended in the literature (see Baehr, 2000; Charren, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Pekurny, 2000; Schneider, 2000). This study contributes to the literature by providing insight into the process of partnering with cultural producers as a strategy for changing portrayals.
Asking an organization to change its ways before generating bad press and approaching an organization as if it doesn’t know any better also reflects the application of facework, which is a strategy for cultivating relationships. Facework involves helping people protect their image, which is casually known as saving face (Huang, 2001). The fact that most cultural producers change what they are doing without the use of pressure tactics demonstrates the importance and effectiveness of giving organizations a chance to respond to problems before resorting to publicity, and this approach saves time and energy that can be focused on targeting uncooperative cultural producers.
Recognizing cultural producers for good portrayals is another key part of the relationship building process, and both organizations give awards for portrayals, which is a tactic described by several authors (Aoki, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Hendershot, 1998). The LGBT organization also rewards media networks (and punishes others) through its annual media responsibility report, which is the same tactic that the NLMC (2010) uses, and it is a tactic described by Montgomery (1989). This study also reinforces previous findings by demonstrating the effectiveness of empowering supporters to engage in advocacy when a cultural producer does not cooperate (also see Montgomery, 1989; Rossman, 2000; Watson & Corrigan, 2005), as well as the importance of prevention efforts, such as distributing guidelines to the Writer’s Guild of America and issuing an annual media reference guide (also see Altieri, 2000; Montgomery, 1989; Pekurny, 2000; Rossman, 2000).
This study contributes new insight to the literature by showing that an outcome of effectively working with targeted cultural producers can be the successful recruitment of new event sponsors, which provides much-needed energy to advocacy organizations. Advocacy organizations depend on energy, such as money, to maintain themselves and prevent entropy (Katz & Kahn, 1978). Also, this study contributes new details to the literature by recommending that local advocates address local issues. Thus, if a national organization is outraged by a local issue, it should work through local leaders.
RQ 2: Communication strategies. (The discussion for the second research question is included in the research in brief, so I can’t duplicate the discussion here, but I have summarized it at the beginning of this blog post.)
Applications of research. The process and strategies described in the research questions have broad applications for a non-violent method for responding to problematic representations perpetuated by cultural producers. In both cases, the process and strategies used by the advocacy organizations usually result in success for the organizations in this study, meaning that the producer complies with the organization’s requests, such as issuing an apology, removing the offensive communication, and avoiding future transgressions. Findings from the research questions can be used to provide insight regarding how a maligned culture (e.g., based on religious beliefs, geography, class) could change its toxic media environment through non-violent advocacy. The cultural byproducts model presents a general framework that can be used by mainstream advocacy organizations in future work with cultural producers.
Citation for the research in brief
Ciszek, E. L., & Gallicano, T. D. (2013). Changing cultural stigma: A pilot study of LGBT and mental illness organizations. Public Relations Review, 39(1), 82-84.
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