How to make video advocacy sharp and effective?

Blog post by Anna Dovbakh, Deputy Director for Information and Technical Support at EHRN, on efficient use of video advocacy in the context of harm reduction.

12 November 2015

Anna Dovbakh, Deputy Director for Information and Technical Support at EHRN.

Video Advocacy is a relatively new and interesting genre of fine art that uses elements of different types of film journalism with advocacy purposes. Recently, we have often turned to this genre, for example, within the regional campaign "Harm reduction works – fund it!" to attract the attention of decision-makers to the issue of funding for harm reduction services. But are we always able to make videos efficient and sharp instruments that have an impact on the hearts and minds of the viewers? Does video advocacy always facilitate decision making?

The video advocacy format is the closest to the information-analytical genre, for example, the news or investigative journalism. But it can also include elements of documentary cinema produced as short films; educational film (for example, about technologies and mechanisms and how they can be used) and social advertising. Often in reality all of these genres are mixed; this can lead to misunderstanding on the part of the audience: for whom and for what purpose was the film shot? The author gets offended by this question: how come they don’t understand? And then says: "For everyone; to educate clients, to train social workers, doctors and government officials – for them to understand how all this should be arranged." And all this is discussed in five minutes.

First of all, planning. We begin planning by defining the target audience: who do we want to influence with our message? For whom is it intended? And then, our goals and the main message. The Golden Rule of the entire communication is the algorithm of the development from goals to objectives and – then to the method of implementation. Hence, before choosing the genre we need to define the goals and the main message, to clearly understand what the author wants to say.

For example, let's consider what genre features these video clips can have, created with a particular goal and for the same audience: officials of the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Finance, who can make or implement the decisions to support harm reduction services from the local budget.

A. Purpose: expanding officials’ horizons and their understanding of the types of harm reduction programs, what services can be provided and how they can be provided.

To achieve this goal we generate a message such as: "In our country / region a package of harm reduction services has long been implemented. From a cost standpoint, these services are innovative and efficient. It is important that these services are sustained / reformed, introducing something new ... ". To convey this message, the format of an educational documentary will work best, something like what one can see on the Discovery Channel. The video should show the lives of the clients and how harm reduction fits into their daily routine. Also it should show some of the important schemes that illustrate the service package, staff efficiency and cost components, as well as the views of the major stakeholders: clients, social workers and doctors. The video clip may contain examples of similar practices in other countries. But it should be borne in mind that, even if we shoot only the best international experience, it is important to combine it with the reality of the country - either by including an interview with a doctor and a client, or by using comparative footage, or by using charts that compare the availability, price and other parameters of the services.

The same goal – expanding officials’ horizons - can be achieved by making videos about how (and exactly what kind of) financial support is provided to harm reduction in other countries. For clarity, it may look like an expert-economist sharing his/her experience while his/her calculations are displayed on the screen as on the school board, so all can understand how the cost calculations were arrived at.

B. Purpose: causing emotional empathy on the part of the officials regarding the consequences of interrupting the harm reduction programs and/or the positive impact of harm reduction programs on people's lives.

To achieve this goal, we use personal stories. But these are not typical stories to be expected with stereotypical plots that do not surprise or impress us, they do not "cling", and therefore, won’t be remembered. From our own biographical details or from those of our activists, it is important to choose those that “ask” to be included in a touching short story, for example by A. Chekhov or O. Henry. A good personal story is one that we want to retell to our friends using words such as: "I know one person, so his fate is dashing twisted ... imagine! … And still he/she did this... and what helped him/her was..." This video material can alternate an interview with our character, shots from his/her home or in a place that he/she frequents, the words of his/her relatives and loved ones. The more vivid the details, the easier it is for the viewer to feel solidarity with our character - as they say, to "get into his skin", "go all the way in his shoes", to think about how one would behave in the place of this hero, and the more we influence the decision of the viewer: in 3-5 minutes we plunge the viewer into the abyss of difficulties experienced by our character, and then, providing a sort of magic wand, we help the viewers to get out of it. As in real life, a personal story does not necessarily have to have a happy ending. Best of all, if the story is multifaceted and if it touches upon the problems and dilemmas that are important for an ordinary human being, that are not only related to drug use, but also to the care for one’s family members, to war and peace, and to economic success as opposed to helping people.

Since we are shooting an advocacy material, not a short film, in addition to the details of your organization, the last block must contain clear instructions for a call for action and what the target audience should do and how this should be done. The simpler and more accessible the story, the better.

B2. For violations of human rights of people who use drugs to become more than mere words for officials, we will need another type of video stories. The format may resemble a criminal chronicle, which clearly sets out details and events. Only the criminals in this chronicle are the police that have committed illegal acts or failed to prevent violence, as well as doctors who have failed to provide health care services, government officials and other violators of human rights. It is important to show the magnitude of the problem, to emphasize that the stated case, despite its uniqueness (as it happened to one person), unfortunately, is not an isolated case. If you do not have official statistics or research results, you can show a map with episodes of documented human rights violations (as it is done on the website of the campaign "Women Against Violence") or record short answers by people from the most vulnerable communities to a question such as: "How many people from your immediate circle have experienced episodes of police violence over the past month?"

At the end of the video clip it must be indicated which provisions of the legal framework need to be changed and what needs to be changed in the law enforcement practice to prevent such human rights violations.

B. Objective: to convince the officials that community leaders, doctors and many influential people support the idea of ​​ funding harm reduction from the state budget.

To achieve this we need a large number of interviews with our allies. It would be perfect to have reports from conferences and various international events involving famous politicians, doctors who have authority, as well as social movement leaders who are committed to harm reduction approaches, whose opinion may be significant for local officials. Allies could theoretically be ordinary citizens, but, unfortunately, we have not yet managed to reverse the social stereotypes. This means that when conducting public polls on the streets we risk hearing directly opposing views that are not based on any data and are medieval in terms of their prejudiced view of HIV prevention among people who use drugs.

For harm reduction advocates it is important to demonstrate that policy makers in neighboring countries support harm reduction. The comparison method is very effective. Furthermore, substantial assistance in advocacy may come from supportive views by doctors, teachers, priests, scientists, famous athletes, actors - that is, people who are not directly involved in harm reduction services and have no personal interest. Being aware of such support, it will be easier for the officials to make a decision: they will not feel like "one soldier in a battle." The video should offer to officials some kind of line of argument, aimed at different audiences, in favor of the decision to allocate funds.

The same task is performed by reports from international meetings involving eminent, distinguished guests, as well as information on relevant provisions of declarations and brief reports on international guidelines developed by organizations providing technical support or by UN agencies. Information about bonuses allocated to those who have achieved the most success may have positive effects.

Reports about establishing social associations to address a problem may serve as a vivid evidence of support from society, especially if these associations include people belonging to different segments of society and those that have public authority. For instance, support to the Declaration on decriminalization of drug use by a mothers’ organization can be important news, even for the national television channels.

I think this topic includes several other objectives that I did not mention; let us remember, add and propose ideas together!

Another similar list of targets, messages and methods of shooting films will be used for other advocacy tasks.

Wishing fun and inspired creativity to all of us!