Creating Positive Social Change

“It’s not always sexy to be in this space,” said Meredith Blake, CEO and Chief Strategist of Cause & Affect, as she stood on the stage of the Katzen Arts Center at American University to deliver her keynote address for Media That Matters 2012.  Meredith’s quiet confidence filled the auditorium as she acknowledged that social change is hard work.  Her confidence comes from twenty years of experience, most notably working on the social action campaign designed around Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  Moving individuals from passive isolation to a state of active community is something that requires hard work, a sense of community, and adjustment to an ever-changing reality.

Meredith’s experience as a public interest attorney showed as she detailed three key components to a successful social change campaign:  research, strategy, and management.  Meredith spent six months in rigorous research before she began to plan the strategy for the social action campaign to accompany This Emotional Life, which aired on PBS in 2010.   Her goal was not simply to research, but to inspire new conclusions in the audience.  An audience member balked, “Six months?  That’s a long time!” Pat Aufderheide, Director of the Center for Social Media and a Professor at American University, joked with the audience in response, “Not long enough!”

Meredith took it one step further by asking everyone, “Are online campaigns enough?”  If it’s enough to log on and sign a petition, then how much sustainability has truly been created?  A well executed and intensive campaign should create innovative structures that help to mobilize people around organizations, and then mobilize those organizations around media for a deeper, more extended impact.  A deeper dive into the social change campaign for This Emotional Life helped to illustrate this approach.

The goals for this particular campaign began simply:  drive the audience to the content, provide toolkits as ongoing resources, and reinforce the audience behavior over time.  Over the six months of research, two key concepts had bubbled to the surface:  returning military as the biggest health crisis in America (particulary the issue of re-integration to civilian life), and early attachment as an investment in future mental well-being.  The campaign began to focus on these as the tenets for the social change.

The strategy influenced production — high-quality footage was redistributed via the toolkits and online communities.  Meredith called this “Pop-Out Content”.  This content helped to fuel engagement not only online, but also with 30+ key partnerships.  This became crucial later as the economy took a downturn, and budgets were trimmed of support for the project.  Plans had to be adjusted as alternative, creative partnerships were pursued to bridge the gap.  The University of Phoenix, the federal government, the Baby Center, and an online store that produced toolkits for “free” (or on-demand) were new sources of support in the changing economic landscape.  ‘The world changes and you have to be prepared to change with it,” said Meredith.

In the end, the toolkits created around This Emotional Life content were distributed to over 250,000 military families, and 80,000 caregivers.  The online community that began with this production continues today, and this is what Meredith means when she talks about creating campaigns that have sustainability.  It’s not simply reconsumption of the product, but a transformation of a static public into something active and awake.

Media That Matters 2012: The Center for Social Media and Arts Engine, Inc.  To learn more about the Center for Social Media located at American University in Washington, DC, visit


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