Faculty & Staff

The Role of Communications in Social Justice: Q&A with Davina Jones, Ph.D.

D_Jones_154x154Davina Jones, Ph.D., is a presenter, professional development coach, and professor of interpersonal and rhetorical communication studies with more than 20 years of experience in higher education. She is Program Director for Adler’s new online M.A. in Media and Communications program, which is enrolling its first student cohort to begin classes this summer. Dr. Jones’ areas of pedagogical and professional expertise include persuasion, social movements, and message construction

We’ve been discussing the Syrian refugee crisis. The United States has not done nearly as much to help as many other nations have, such as Canada. From a social movement perspective, why has the crisis not generated much reaction in the U.S.?

People ask what can be done to generate the same level of support and advocacy for Syrian refugees that is generated for the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. Part of the difference is that Black Lives Matter is happening here, in the United States, rather than another country. It is routine to see the importance of an issue based on proximity.

Another real difference is in imagery. Images are crucial for any social justice movement. They spark interest, evoke sympathy, and incite action. When you think about the Syrian refugee crisis, everyone saw the picture of the toddler who had drowned and washed up on shore after his family’s boat capsized. It was deeply affecting and crystalized for people the cost of our inaction. However, it was really the only one that stood out.

Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, has emerged over years. We’ve seen a steady stream of videos—from bystanders’ cell phones and police officers’ dash cameras and body cameras—that repeatedly show unarmed black men being shot by police.

There have also been high-profile cases in the media, in which the shooters have been acquitted, each sparking more and more outrage. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, yielded more iconic images, with white police officers pointing assault rifles at unarmed black men. People were chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” We saw and heard that message spread in protests across the nation. The protests gained repeated support with the deaths of Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald captured on video.

So, Black Lives Matter has a proximity, an immediacy, and a momentum in the United States that simply overshadowed the Syrian refugee crisis. It has yielded an unrelenting barrage of imagery that the public cannot ignore or forget.

There are so many social needs calling for advocates, so many that need to be addressed. From a communications standpoint, how do you get people’s attention?

Right, it is a competitive landscape. And, while there are lots of examples of successful campaigns, there’s no single recipe. If there were, we’d all be doing ice bucket challenges for breast cancer, domestic violence, and everything else. Sometimes an issue goes viral because you got lucky. Other times, you have to go into the communications tool box. Our Media and Communications program offers this. User Psychology is one of the courses that addresses it. I teach my students that, before they dream up a new creative campaign, they have to first know their audience. Not just their demographics, but really understand what moves them, how they react to and engage with different forms of media. Most of all, communications people have to understand what their audience wants, and identify where that intersects with the goals of their organization. Creating that common goal is everything.

The blessing and curse of social media is that now everyone has a voice and an audience. Does that change how effective communications can be in advancing a social justice campaign?

I think it’s undeniably good that we’re not all dependent on competing for traditional media coverage. It used to be that print and broadcast news was the gatekeeper to public awareness. That’s no longer true. We’re now able to find our audiences where they’re at, to talk to them directly. The problem is that now there’s a lot of noise and clutter, so it’s much more likely that people will simply ignore us. That said, not all social media content is created equal. A lot of organizations and companies go for quantity over quality, which doesn’t help anyone. If we take time to really understand our audience and connect with them in a way that is authentic and creative, we have a much better chance of being heard.

How do concepts of social justice and social responsibility apply to media and communications?

Social movements call attention to the value and dignity of human life as we witness who graduates from high school and who doesn’t, who is criminalized and who isn’t. What we emphasize in Adler’s M.A. in Media and Communications program is the power of strategic communication to advance that call across multiple platforms. What we learn can be summed up in one word: responsibility. We are responsible for the world we live in and the world we leave behind.