Public Relations and the Social Movement

Martin Luther King Jr. (Central Press/Getty Images, Biography.com)

Through the smart effective use of public relations, Civil Rights leaders of the sixties time were the catalyst that brought unity and peace to a divisive nation. In fact, much of the PR related to Martin Luther King’s movement, for one, culminated in a society that has paved the way for people, young and old, to cross cultural boundaries and to create a place where music, sports, entertainment and food intersect to create a heaven on Earth.

All of this would not have been possible without effective PR.

How do social movements affect change for you?

Everything about the way we, the way you, live today exists because of the many different movements that made major issues a platform for change. Women’s Suffragist, Abolitionists, and Civil Rights Movements were all movements that affected social or political change, for everyone.

A social movement typically is….

When speaking about social movements, we are usually talking about groups of action that act as agents of political or social change. These agents can be individualswhole populations or cultures within populations.

And how do they make change?

Dr. Martin Luther King at the Civil Rights March on Washington (Wikipedia Commons)

However, most social movements involve more than organization for a cause. The function of most social movements in society is to:

  • Understand that the complex nature of society (different interest engaging with one another) dictates that there will always be a certain amount of conflict.
  • Understand that negotiation is a part of social or political change, even with limitations.
  • Understand that power (power dynamic) are an important limitation.
  • Understand that there is a certain amount of risk (in terms of responsibility and freedom) that organizations take when affecting social or political change.

All of these factors play a role in the tone and tempo of a major social movement that changes an establishment, especially if the establishment’s ideology is one that is ingrained in the public psyche.

Where can you find most of this change?

The results of a social movement can be found on pretty much every aspect of your life. Social movements have been at the root of:

  • Modernizing institutions by re-establishing new leadership and redefining the culture.
  • Deciding on who makes the rules and who decides on appropriate social norms.
  • Operating as a voice that raises questions that are not permitted. While these questions might only be related to a certain group within the population, the entire population is usually affected.
  • Establishing a new consciousness regarding the issue.

For the most part, social movements are not only the catalyst for change in your life, but they also function to keep cultural paradigms up-to-date, and in some cases, progressive.

How is public relations a catalyst in popularizing a social movement?

One integral part to a movement is public opinion, which includes your opinion. A collective public opinion is usually the foundation by which most social movements get their start.

More importantly, movements become established when organizations engage in relationships with the public/s or stakeholders (people who are affected by the movement—you and me) in which they want to affect change.

For example….

During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King established relationships with at least two publics: African-American people in the South and the establishment. These two stakeholders had separate opinions (and investments) regarding the issue of African-American marginalization and disenfranchisement in the South, so he had to persuade both publics of his mission—equal rights and equal access for all.

In the end….

Depending on the type of relationship established (one-way or two-way), public relations acts a catalyst by mobilizing public opinion (your opinion) or facilitating the public’s interest and investment in central principles outlined in the movement. At the point that an organization or individual can get the support from its publics, the movement takes shape and form to affect change.

Social movements engage in public relations to affect change through….

  • Community-based programs that focus on the health, social, educational, or financial welfare of the involved community. For the women in the early part of twentieth century, Margaret Sanger’s efforts to educate women on sex and birth control in impoverished neighborhoods culminated in establishing Planned Parenthood.
  • Sit-ins or marches and other non-violent activities that are organized to raise awareness and support for causes.
  • Conversely, militant activities that promote violence as a means to raise awareness or fear in the targeted publics.
  • Speeches, press conferences and community meetings that address specific questions regarding the issue from the publics being served.
  • Media, online or print, used to engage in various publics. In the past, newspapers, pamphlets and other advertisements were used in conjunction with other public relations activities to raise awareness. Today, social media and online advertising play a major role in not only raising awareness for causes but also engaging publics, garnering support for the cause, and mobilizing publics for community activism.

Ultimately, social movements use public relations to….

Public relations between organizations and the publics they have relationships with facilitate and promote the organizational platform’s major principles. In doing so, organizational ideas that start out as progressive ones to affect change in our lives evolve into entire social movements, which can affect and change the entire fabric of an established institution!


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