A starting point for civic engagement: Who is the best audience?

A starting point for civic engagement: Who is the best audience?

By Kristen Potter

In the Climate Project, students research “big thorny” climate problems and then make plans to take action in their communities in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But which specific group of people do they want to influence? Identifying the target audience is a crucial component of planning any campaign. I mean, you wouldn’t design a presentation for a group of high-school students in the same way you would for a group of school-board members! So how can you help students keep their eyes on the proverbial prize?

In the Climate Project, that will help us get to net-zero emissions. After students choose a solution as their focus, they will decide on the best Action Opportunity to use to implement that solution. Their action may be to educate their peers, advocate for policy changes, or become an expert in a particular field of study—but it should be something that each student feels strongly about and is excited to promote. A specific group in their community may be well-positioned to implement their proposed solutions. Identifying that group will help your students tailor their presentations and be more effective in their calls to action.

There are several strategies students might use for deciding which target audience to choose for their presentations. First, they could determine who has decision-making power in the area they hope to influence. This could be a single person, such as their school principal, or an organizational structure, such as the mayor’s office. It may be that they’ll need permission or access to promote their action to their target audience, so students might need to decide who has the power to grant that permission. In these situations, students will need to focus on advocacy to convince those decision-making groups to support their proposal.
  Students consult with their teacher before a presentation. © OER Project.

A second important target group may be people who are most impacted by the climate solution students are proposing. Students will need to figure out which groups will benefit the most from their solution. Then, if students educate that group, they may be able to work together to advocate for their solution at the decision-maker level. These two groups may be quite different, so students should consider where they might have the most influence on real change. They might choose to apply a two-tiered approach in which they both educate those impacted and advocate to decision-makers.

Another approach would be to identify an audience students are motivated to work with. In this case, students identify an audience they want to engage with, and then tailor their action proposal to fit that specific group. For example, if your students are excited about climate justice, they may be inspired to collaborate with a group that is particularly vulnerable in their community. This might mean that they educate that specific community about opportunities available to them, or they could advocate for better services to be delivered to that community. Another audience that students may feel excited about collaborating with could be a community group that is already doing good work on mitigation of carbon emissions, which would allow students to expand on work already being done. For example, if there’s a local NGO that promotes access to solar panels, students could use that existing platform as a springboard to promote that action to other areas or people. Or maybe students hope to work with their own families or geographic neighborhoods to take action at home. It’s perfectly valid to consider a specific target audience, and then tailor a proposed Action Opportunity to be relevant to that group.

The best target audience is the group that students are enthusiastic to work with. If they’re excited about their proposed action, help them use that to identify their target audience. If it’s a local group that inspires your students, that’s great too: your students can find an action that will be relevant and motivational to that specific group.

Once students have identified a target audience, remind them to:

  • Drill down and be as specific as possible about exactly who the target is. The audience should be big enough to have an impact on carbon emissions, but small enough to be manageable.
  • Determine the best channels of communication to best influence their audience. Will the audience respond better to personal attention or to public announcements or events?
  • Collect and use evidence that is relevant to the audience in order to convince them to join the proposed action. What key details of the argument will resonate with that audience? What will motivate the audience—and what might they react poorly to?
  • Consider the language and tone of the message. Always be appropriate and polite. Grab the audience’s attention by using fun, creative, catchy words or images while keeping a serious tone. And keep messaging concise so the audience can digest it quickly.

In summary, if an action inspires your students, encourage them to start there to determine the best audience with a focus on those impacted and the decision-makers. If there’s a group within their community that motivates your students, they should choose an action that will energize that specific group. When you start with something that students are enthusiastic about and empower them to work where their interests lie, you have a starting point for real civic engagement.

About the author: Kristen Potter’s early career was spent as a classroom teacher in Mali, Guam, and in New York City public schools. Since then, she has served education in the US and around the world, teaching, training teachers and supervisors, writing curriculum, and as an educational program manager and evaluator. Throughout her career she has focused on promoting and improving educational opportunities for vulnerable populations including refugees, women, vulnerable youth, and rural populations in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Cover image: Student giving a presentation to an audience of classmates. © Image Source/Getty Images.