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Speak Up, Tweet Back, Write AIDS: Communication Tips for HIV Activists in the Social Media Age

June 26, 2017

Mathew Rodriguez, Brandon Cuicchi and Jennifer Johnson Avril

Mathew Rodriguez, Brandon Cuicchi and Jennifer Johnson Avril speak on activist media strategies at "30 Years of ACT UP/NY: Hidden Histories and Voices, Lessons Learned" (Credit: ACT UP/NY)


On June 18 of this year, it was my pleasure to speak at "30 Years of ACT UP/NY: Hidden Histories and Voices, Lessons Learned," along with my friends and comrades, Mic staff writer Mathew Rodriguez and filmmaker Brandon Cuicchi. The conference focused on the lesser-known (and less heralded by mainstream media) contributions of past ACT UP members who were women, people of color, active/former drug users and progressive/leftist activists.

However, if any organization knows that HIV isn't history and AIDS isn't over, it's certainly ACT UP. As such, among the conference's stated goals were to educate and inspire newer activists; to alert and engage people about current, urgent issues; and notably, to "encourage the recording and collection of stories, documents, photos and videos" of ACT UP's unheralded victories, both historically and as they are happening right now.

Activists -- whether new, returning or simply without a communications background -- can face a steep curve when learning about today's main avenues for getting the word out: social media, press releases and video documenting. But one golden rule remains the same: You're not talking to the media, you're talking through the media. That fantastic line was coined by one of the mothers of HIV/AIDS activist storytelling, Ann Northrop, and it remains true for any form of activist messaging.

Our teach-in focused on how to create compelling stories and communicate them through the media, gain attention without the media and raise the enthusiasm and pride of your group while raising awareness outside it. Here's a breakdown of our key lessons, which can help you tell your story and make sure you're heard.


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How to Social Like an Activist

Because social media is instant, it can feel like you need to post your thought, photo or video, immediately and in the moment. But you don't. Just like in a planning meeting or at a demonstration, sometimes it's time to listen to other voices. If you do wish to post, take a minute to consider what you want to say and even write your message out before you post it.

When you have a protest or another large event, part of the planning can (and should) be a social media kit. This is a concise document with samples of all social media posts and content so your members, allies and followers can easily post and tell your story. Components can include:

  • All handles for an audience to follow. For example, @thebodydotcom on Facebook, #TheBodyDotCom on Twitter and @Jen'sAwesomeMadeUpEvent on Instagram.
  • Sample posts for all mediums (remember the 140 word counts for Twitter).
  • Sample hashtags. This should be a mix of terms people commonly search (#HIV #AIDS #Resist), trends if applicable (#UEqualsU) and hashtags that serve as a motto to define and celebrate (#ThisStoryKillsFascists). If it resonates, your followers may copy it.
  • Images for use on these platforms and Tumblr, Instagram, etc. Encourage people to include their own photos, but to support both non-photographers and pre-event posting, have some canned images ready that people know they can use.
  • Edited video if available and links to livestream video, as well as information about the time it will begin (more on that below).


Meet the Press

When it comes to getting the media to take notice of your action or issue, it can feel like you're shouting into a void. Indeed, every press release is competing with so many others that reporters don't read the vast majority of them. Don't expect reporters to read your press release, and absolutely, don't expect them to run it as is. What you can do is make your story come alive -- and make the reporter's job as easy as possible.

The first question a reporter needs answered is, "What's the story?" But what is a story? For a reporter, it's still who, what, when, where and why: That information should be frontloaded in the first paragraph -- if not the header -- of your press release.

Then, include information that will help reporters easily create a lively, readable story: tweets on your topic to show that people are already talking about it, photographs with the photographer's credit so they can be run without further question, and pre-packaged quotes and language that add human interest and flavor.


Get Ready for Your Close-Up

"Just like with writing posts, posting pictures and sharing memes, uploading videos helps you shape the dialogue around your issue," says Brandon Cuicchi, filmmaker and my co-presenter. "People can like it, comment on it, and, in the best case, share it themselves to help it go viral." You have two options when it comes to video: livestreaming and edited video. You can use either or both, depending on your needs.

Livestreaming video is a great way to increase the impact of an action in the moment. People can watch as it unfolds, which makes them feel invested even if they can't attend, and they can like it or comment, which can be gratifying and encouraging to participants. Livestreaming is also a method of newsgathering footage that can later be used for news, archival purposes or evidence in case of arrest.

Live video can help prevent violence, since people are more likely to curb their actions if they know they're being recorded, but make sure your videographer doesn't have any other responsibilities at the event. Your video can later be edited for promotional use, to tell stories about your action or issue and to provide a recap of the event for your audiences, as well as the news media.

Go forth and ACT UP in the media! And don't forget to send us that press release, let us know on Facebook and tag us on Twitter @TheBodyDotCom.

Jennifer Johnson Avril is a communications professional and HIV/AIDS activist based in New York City. She is a master's candidate in media studies for social change.


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