Spinning the Violence

What holds the gender system in place is the threat of violence.  This is easy to see when you are looking at the developing world.  The bride burnings and honor killings of India or Iran seem extreme examples of an ever-present threat in societies where harming women is an everyday, accepted practice, openly said to be necessary to keep females in line.

In the developed countries, we still have a pervasive threat of violence against women, but we have made ourselves blind to it.  Some phenomena, like domestic violence, we insist on treating as isolated, private matters, while the media’s seeming obsession with brutality against women makes sensational stories and imagery so pervasive that we hardly notice them.

Bringing people’s attention to this problem, therefore, requires shaking them into looking at something they have learned to ignore and don’t particularly want to see.  It is not the kind of project that one would expect a corporation to take on.

So, the efforts of Liz Claiborne and their public relations agency, Ruder Finn, are all the more surprising because these two partners are fighting the violence issue out in the open, through the media, using marketing skills and strategies.  On my recent trip to New York, I met with the women who coordinate Liz Claiborne’s Love is Not Abuse effort, Jane Randel from Liz Claiborne, and Anne Glauber from Ruder Finn, and talked to them about the challenges they face in trying to raise awareness and change attitudes about gender violence in America.

Anne and Jane’s team conducts research into questions of violence, its means and typical behaviors, to provide substantive knowledge that can benefit anyone engaged with prevention of this problem.  But they also use each report’s finding as a “news peg” with which to attract coverage from major media.  They successfully grab attention, three or four times a year, from the likes of the New York Times and USA Today, as well as the major morning television shows.

What really requires sophistication, however, is managing the way materials are provided to the media, in order to constrain their propensity to exploit personal violence in a sensational way.  “There is a resistance to covering it right and a resistance to covering it in a sustained way, one that is less focused on perpetrators and the dramatic victim’s story and instead focused on the bigger issue at hand,” Anne observes.  The objective instead is to get the media saying “This is the situation.  This is the problem.  There are ways we can look at prevention and education.  These are the signs.”

In order to get the coverage right, Jane and Anne and their organizations sometimes must refuse requests even from major vehicles.  For instance, Jane remembers one instance in which Nightline wanted them to provide a teen couple in an abusive relationship for a story on adolescent dating violence. “We would never ever ever participate in anything like that.  Safety is key.  Not exploiting people is key.  And we would lose all credibility with our partner organizations.”  Jane says she does understand what the news show was trying to accomplish.  “People want the sob story, that’s what they want.  They want to feel something.”

Yet the opposite problem is also a challenge.  The campaign had a lot of success in its early years with the morning shows, but as time passed, the emotional impact of the content became a problem.  Anne observes that:  “Everyone says to put a happy message on this.  And we try.  We’ve gotten turned down more times for morning shows because it was too—it was a downer.”

How do you put a positive spin on a thing like this?  The team tries to accomplish that by providing prevention guidance and concentrating on survivors.  “We’ve always developed stories where:  here is a victim who has now become a survivor,” says Anne.  Jane adds, with an ironic smile:  “Problem, victim, solution.  In a three-minute segment.  All wrapped up.”

Finding meaningful measures to demonstrate progress is another issue.  In the campaigns against breast cancer or HIV, there are clear outcomes that can be offered as indicative of success:  longer lives for patients, breakthrough procedures, and so on.  The violence issue is less amenable to such indicators.  As Jane and Anne point out, one sign of an awareness campaign that was working might be an increase in calls to hotlines: to the uninitiated, this would be an ambiguous outcome.

Another charge they face from other potential partners in the corporate world is that they have taken on something that is too big, that will always be there, that is somehow the normal state of things.  One corporate social responsibility executive told them he was completely in support of their intention, but felt they were essentially “trying to end all war and conflict”: in other words, taking on an impossible task, tilting at windmills.

For all these reasons, the challenges for a media campaign against the violence are substantially more daunting than for other causes:  “This is an issue that just cannot seem to break through the way that breast cancer or HIV have really broken through,” Jane observes.  Yet Anne also emphasizes its central importance to fighting inequity, “It is one of the key critical issues of our day and women’s equality affects everything else.”

This kind of media savvy and the money that makes it happen is not something that not-for-profits can bring to bear on the problem. Anne and Jane agree that it is an intellectual and professional challenge to figure out how to have an impact through a private sector organization, using private sector resources. They have to be careful not to siphon away funds or attention that could benefit the direct services being offered by their many non-profit partners, like Break the Cycle and Joyful Heart.  So, they have crafted an elaborate program that includes research and media, but also educational curricula and political action.  “We have a grassroots coalition!” laughs Anne, “A grassroots coalition connected to our corporation!”

This effort began in 1991, when Liz Claiborne was trying to refresh its image with consumers and raise its profile in the women’s magazines.  Market research revealed that violence against women was a topic that most females thought very important—and that these readers would view a company who took on the issue in a very positive light.

When Jane Randel “inherited” this program in her job a few years later, the campaign itself was just getting started.  “I just took it and ran,” Jane, who was only 27 at the time, remembers.  “I used to say that it could have been any issue.  And maybe it could have been any issue.  But it wasn’t, it was this issue.  Once I became immersed in it and saw the tragedy of it all and the unnecessary outcomes, it became hard not to really want to get engaged.”  The hope that she could actually make an impact made the violence issue “a real challenge for me.  It became something that I felt strongly about.”

Anne Glauber had already been involved in this issue, but on the not-for-profit side.  “I was influenced in my work by Noeleen Hayzer, who was the head of the United Nations Fund for Women and was a friend,” Anne explains.  “Noeleen was the one who really impressed upon me how violence against women keeps them unequal.”  The mentorship led to Anne working with Unifem as well as other organizations trying to raise awareness about violence in the U.S.

Anne was working with a non-profit organization who was partnering with Liz Claiborne, when she and Jane met nearly nine years ago.  “It has been this amazing, powerful partnership,” she says.  “The two of us brainstorm well together.  We have been effective moving this issue forward in a way that I don’t think many organizations have been able to do.”

Further, these two dedicated campaigners emphasize that there is a substantial audience of women out there who care deeply about this issue and that this audience is broad-based.  They also feel that any step toward support should be welcome, whether it’s volunteering at a shelter, giving money, or just “getting people to wear a button.”  In the end, both Anne and Jane feel that their mission is to change social norms, to “denormalize” the conditions of violence that keep gender inequality going.

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