Boston , United States

MIRA: Media Advocacy With A Human Face

Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)

May 18, 2009

Using personal stories to re-frame a communications campaign

Baby Tomasa was reunited with her father after three months of separation

Baby Tomasa was reunited with her father after three months of separation

On May 20th 2007, readers of the Sunday Washington Post Magazine would have seen an arresting photo of two year Tomasa Mendez crying in her mothers arms after watching her father being hauled away by US immigration authorities.

When the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) was tipped off about a planned raid on a New Bedford garment factory it was able to activate a newly developed communications strategy and direct the way the media handled the story.

MIRA’s timing was perfect. The story ran in the middle of a heated national debate about reforming US immigration laws.

Was the story and placement a lucky coincidence for those working with and for undocumented workers? Well no. It was all part of MIRA’s carefully thought out communications plan aimed at reframing public debate about immigration.

Baby Tomasa whose crying face became the poster for the movement

Baby Tomasa whose crying face became the poster for the movement

MIRA is a coalition with more than 100 members working to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees. Because it had prepared itself by building relationships with the local community and the media, MIRA was able to keep one step ahead and ensure its message was at the forefront of the coverage.

Normally, local Massachusetts right wing radio blasts attacks on immigrants, but MIRA was also able to quiet them with a frontal attack,” explains MIRA’s communications associate, Shuya Ohno. This time, “We were able to generate the sympathetic frame first.”

Ohno determined to turn things round and in the months leading up to the New Bedford raid he consulted partner organisations and started implementing a strategy for getting MIRA’s voice into the immigration debate.

Starting from the premise that most reporters had no desire to hurt people and would recognise a human story if it was offered to them, Ohno cultivated journalist contacts and tutored community leaders in press etiquette. He made sure he returned every press call and sought out individuals from relevant communities to illustrate the human side of the stories. Key to the strategy was maintaining the trust of the people MIRA served, keeping a clear distinction between larger policy issues and advocacy with sensitivity for the individual.

Ali Noorani the Executive Director of MIRA adds, “I thought of how the Red Cross kept the focus during Hurricane Katrina on individuals and so we kept the focus on individuals and not immigration policy.”

MIRA’s highly coordinated and sophisticated communications strategy shifted the focus of the US immigration debate towards the largely ignored human side of the story. This included the children and families of the estimated 7 million undocumented workers adversely affected by the current laws and 3 year backlog of naturalization applications.

Recognizing that immigrants as well as community groups working with them were often unprepared to lobby effectively to meet their needs, MIRA developed strategies to mobilize both groups to speak with one voice on the issues that matter to them. Media training helped organisers understood how the media operated and was able to provide what reporters wanted. Families were prepared too, and told they didn’t have to answer questions if they didn’t want. Care was taken to maintain the immigrant workers’ dignity and ensure they were not exploited.

This result was an immigrant-led communications plan that drives how a story is developed, what information the public receives and how it shapes their opinion on the issues.

A perfect opportunity

The New Bedford raid presented a perfect opportunity to put MIRA’s communications strategy to the test. The key message was agreed and fed to reporters in mainstream and ethnic media. Community leaders were identified and given talking points. Within hours of the event MIRA was ready to hold a news conference and frame the raid’s impact in its own language.

The arrest by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials of 350 “illegal workers” was immediately redefined as an action against “350 mothers and fathers”. As MIRA looked for a new line for the second day’s coverage, reports started coming in of youngsters separated from their parents turning up at a local church in New Bedford. So MIRA established a ‘press centre’ at the church and distributed news feeds focussing on the ‘destruction of the immigrant family’.

MIRA’s main aim was to steer public emotion so it would overcome the politics of fear propagated by anti-reformers. Ohno and his colleagues calculated that most people have a sympathetic response to images of mothers and crying babies. So people and personal effects became the focus of MIRA’s message, as executive director Ali Noorani explains: “We had the visual of diapers and food on a big (collection) table. We found a key community leader to do the press conference so that there was local leadership buy-in.”

Sympathetic coverage

As a result of this minute by minute monitoring and directing of activities MIRA coordinated a total of 11 press conferences and four large events in the first 12 days following the raid. Media interest was maintained with a stream of new angles including compelling stories, voices and images to build public support. Articles in the local media were followed up in The New York Times and Washington Post, as well as popular blogs like Huffington Post. MIRA’s own website U-Tube were also used to channel information and attract funds.

Ready access to a growing data bank of individual stories also improved the relationship that MIRA had with their press contacts, “We were transformed from a policy shop to an organizing shop. We became seen as a trusted convener and advocate,” says Noorani.

With sympathetic coverage of the affected families and children from media leaders like The New York Times and the Washington Post, MIRA was also able to garner the support of groups such as affluent suburban families who had traditionally not been supportive of their mandate –coverage worth over $175,000 in contributions and the popular support needed to advance immigration reform.

Making it Work for You:

  • MIRA success came from presenting a consistent and compelling alternative message to the one usually portrayed by the media. To keep the story "alive" they had a network of media ready community members who were able to speak on message to the press.
  • Don't be afraid of personal stories! It was the focus on individuals that helped humanize the issue and interest journalists to go beyond the usual policy focus.
  • Look to link a local issue or event to something happening on the national or international stage - don't be afraid to "Think Big."

Themes: connect, Advocacy, Media