How to Write about Issue Advocacy

I’m reigniting this meme.

First, Binyavanga Wainaina wrote “How to Write about Africa.” Then, Ansel Herz wrote “How to Write about Haiti.” Then, J. at Tales from the Hood wrote “How to Write about Humanitarian Aid Work.”

So, obviously, I had to add my own snarky rejoinder about something near and dear to my heart: advocacy. What aid work and advocacy have in common is how routinely they’re both marginalized by journalism that only looks at one side of the profession. (Though I can’t in good conscience compare the marginalization of either profession to the level of marginalization and exoticism forced upon Africa and Haiti in the mainstream media.)


If your article doesn’t include the words “badvocacy,” “slacktivist,” or “awareness,” you’re doing it wrong. Talk about branded wristbands, berets, and—yes—thongs like they’re an end, not a means to one.

You should highlight the growing use of Twitter hashtags, Facebook groups, and funny YouTube videos in advocacy campaigns, not the everyday inside-the-Beltway email exchanges and meetings among professionals. You’re after page-views and click-throughs, you’re not writing a footnoted article in some outdated print publication.

With that in mind, always mention which celebrities are aligned with the cause you’re writing about. Try to include a picture. If there are no celebrities involved, rethink even writing your article. Humanitarian disasters without celebrity advocates are more like disasters in journalism.

Misha Collins, of course

I've included a picture of a celebrity. (It's Misha Collins.)

Find an advocacy organization whose founders you can describe as “idealistic college kids turned DC insiders.” Include the ages of the organization’s senior staff unless they’re over 30—then don’t mention the staff at all. Only write about Americans advocating for the underprivileged in darker, browner countries. For example, never write about the Sudanese disapora’s advocacy on Darfur and Southern Sudan when you could write about Don Cheadle and Ben Affleck.

Only write about non-profit advocacy. Be sure to detail how small the organization’s office space is and how it keeps their overhead low. These aren’t professionals, they’re activists. Don’t let your readers start to think there might be work or skill involved. It’s about personalities, luck, and—this is very important—celebrities.

Never write about professional policy advocates. The suit-wearing, wine-swilling, cigar-smoking wheeler-dealers are not activists. People only care about the youth, the kids with ideas who are about action instead of inaction. Write about their “die-ins” and their “displacements” on the Mall. Don’t write about coordination meetings and conference calls and the endless strategizing engaged in by the tie-wearing monkeys in air-conditioned offices. No one wants to hear ten years of professional experience making policy recommendations and working connections in Washington is more effective than getting a topic trending on Twitter.

Don’t ask how advocacy groups and humanitarian aid organizations work together. Remember, aid workers are the salt of the earth and advocates are the sweaty seersucker-wearing know-it-alls. They’re cats and dogs, elephants and mice—natural enemies. They don’t work together, don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. To be safe, don’t ask in the first place. Policies advocated in smoky hallways in Washington are never based on feedback from the field. Absolutely don’t mention that humanitarian organizations themselves engage in advocacy.

Your readers don’t care about foreign aid budgets or appropriations. They don’t want to know about fiscal years or the difference between the Department of State budget and the foreign operations budget. They don’t want to hear that every time the president or Congress threatens to cut humanitarian aid it’s professional advocates that make phone calls and send out action alerts. They want to read about George Clooney and his meetings with President Obama. They want to read about the college kid that took a week off school to volunteer in northern Uganda and now sells wristbands in his university’s cafeteria to support Invisible Children. That’s the real advocacy that benefits the poor—just read the kid’s blog about his time at that orphanage.

If you must write about for-profit advocacy, remember to call it lobbying. Your readers know about lobbying and they know they don’t like it. Keep things black and white, good versus evil. There are no good lobbyists, your readers know this, so absolutely don’t mention that non-profit advocates are actually lobbyists.

Every good story needs a villain. Your best bet is to investigate which foreign countries have hired high-priced lobbying firms. Ignore the mid-level ones. Unless it has a K Street address, it’s not going to be villainous enough.

Always assume the former State Department official you’re quoting is as unbiased as you are. Surely no former Assistant Secretary would find employ unduly influencing her old colleagues on behalf of the highest bidder. Take her analysis at face value and for the love of God, don’t go looking up her lobbying registration after she’s gone on the record. You need that quote, don’t jeopardize it with facts.

Go to a rally, go to a “die-in,” get a picture of wide-eyed idealists with their fists in the air. Call that advocacy. Say it will lead to real change. Say it will save lives. Ignore the people who are really changing the world: the activists in that darker, browner country who risk their lives to rally, to demand change.


5 thoughts on “How to Write about Issue Advocacy

  1. If we consider advocacy to be the practice of supporting someone to make their voice heard or to represent the interests of someone else, effective advocacy must be synonymous with ethical and critically-conscious advocacy.

    Simply put, good advocacy can’t be about the advocates.

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