Co.Create

How To Turn Audiences Into Activists: 5 Lessons in Social Engagement from Participant Media

As the water crisis documentary Last Call at the Oasis opens, Participant Media executives Christopher Gebhardt and Chad Boettcher explain how they use social media to turn complex, overwhelming issues into hope and action.

It seems as if the global—or at least national—crisis documentary has become nearly an annual tradition. It started with An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 Al Gore documentary that helped to open people’s eyes to the devastation of global warming. The ritual continued with 2008’s Food Inc., 2009’s The Cove, and 2010’s Waiting for Superman. Now comes Last Call at the Oasis, a chronicle of our most precious—and most endangered—natural resource, water. The film, which opened May 4 in New York and Los Angeles, examines climate change, water contamination, and industrial regulation as they relate to the impending crisis in water consumption. The movie brings it all home with a look at communities already dealing with the issue every day and with some help from Erin Brockovich, who has been defending the town of Hinkley, CA, where the local utility poisoned nearby groundwater. It’s a powerful message, but how does the company behind the film, Participant Media, ensure that a film’s message reaches beyond theaters and remains a rallying point after screens go dark?

Chad Boettcher, executive vice president of social action and advocacy at Participant Media, and Christopher Gebhardt, EVP and general manager of Participant’s digital media and cause services agency Take Part, tell Co.Create how they go about harnessing the impact of a documentary and transforming the complicated feelings it inspires into social action.

BECOME A HUB FOR THE EXISTING SOCIAL ACTION COMMUNITY

"We recognize that we’re not the experts on the issue," says Boettcher. So Participant’s social action campaigns begin months in advance of a movie’s release, with screenings for people who are the experts. That helps to build word-of-mouth within the industries affected; often those groups will bring their stakeholders to theaters on opening night and Participant will sponsor conversations and invite the media. "One of the things that has been interesting learning over the last years of doing this as a company is that the films provide a unique place for the NGO community to gather," says Gebhardt. "They do compete, quite frankly, with each other for contributions and supporters but when there’s a film like Waiting for 'Superman’ and An Inconvenient Truth that they know is going to create a moment when an issue can pop we get them to work together on the broader topic. There’s always a lot of air traffic control to keep the sometimes competing agendas or conflicting ideas in focus on the larger prize of driving broad engagement around a topic that will benefit everybody."

GIVE PEOPLE TOOLS TO ACT LOCALLY

The flip side of those often competing agendas is that each organization can find its angle on the film. Participant’s Last Call campaign is designed to be broad enough to allow for that. The Water Bill of Rights is a tool that the company designed to accomplish a number of things. "It allows everybody to participate," explains Boettcher, "but then we can individually activate locally and [for example] work with Erin Brockovich and the Pesticide Action Network on the water quality issue in Mississippi. That may not be something that, say, the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] had on its radar or that they had a focus on but it’s still something that we can activate around, inspired by the film."

The petition collects zip codes so that each signee will receive updates related to their region. “We are looking to this summer and fall when we anticipate seeing fracking issues arise in Ohio or upstate New York, or a drought in Colorado or West Texas, or issues with conservation in the Central Valley here in California," says Boettcher. Petition in hand, they have water advocates plotted on a map who can be activated locally. “Say there’s a water infrastructure bill in Sacramento that we want to partner with the mayor to help pass, we have this digital overlay of people around the country.” They in turn work with more than 30 different water-related NGOs who then take up the action. (The Last Call campaign, housed on MSN, has a wealth of content that you can see here.)

PROVIDE INCENTIVE FOR ACTION

The movies The Cove, about dolphin slaughter, and Countdown to Zero, about nuclear threat, ended with a direct call to action: Text a given keyword to 77177. Participant saw a high level of engagement, but because those films didn’t see huge business at the box office some of that potential went unfulfilled. "It’s not exactly a date movie," jokes Boettcher of Countdown. But they took that learning and added an incentive: Waiting for "Superman" had a three-minute animated call to action and those who texted received $25 virtual gift cards for giving money to Donors Choose. "The redemption rate on those cards was extremely high," reports Gebhardt. "So we had learned from The Cove that this connection is good; if we can get people to do it at scale it’s even better. And if we give them something to really do, an action to immediately take, we can immediately create social impact right there in the theater." Last Call ends by asking moviegoers to text "water" to 77177 and to log onto takepart.com/lastcall.

CREATE CONTENT AROUND THE CONTENT

The folks at Participant found that the content that makes the most impact is not necessarily the documentary itself. It might be the "shoulder content." "The story happens in more than one place," says Boettcher. "Whether it’s in the movie theater or on television or at a panel discussion or online, we want to make sure we’re reaching the people who need the message on whichever platform. So the movie is the big moment but we work to continue the engagement elsewhere."

"On Waiting for Superman we called it the shock and awe video," says Gebhardt of a video (below) that was released four months in advance of the film and set the agenda for the film. "The message of the film is really the filmmakers’ viewpoint." Whereas the content around the content, which they produce in partnership with NGOs, is the larger message of the campaign.

In part, the content around the content becomes about giving people real-life tools, a single call to action. In the case of Last Call, they seek to educate consumers that water conservation isn’t, as most of us have come to believe, primarily about turning off the tap and taking shorter showers. Those are of course worthwhile efforts, but the big change will come with decreased consumption of meat and other food items that can take thousands of gallons of water to produce. Says Boettcher, "We’re talking about the opportunity to authentically engage on people on issues both before, during, and after the theater and the role that digital platforms play then is key."

LET THE FILM’S MESSAGE TAKE ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN

Food, Inc., a film about our nation’s food industry, spawned an ongoing community, which has a hub on Facebook and on TakePart.com and has evolved beyond the movie’s core message. "Now, two to three years later, we’re doing stuff that is several generations away from that core message but definitely is feeding, if you’ll pardon the pun, that broader Food, Inc.-interested community," says Gebhardt. "These campaigns are living, breathing organisms. Food, Inc. is as vital today to a large chunk of the population as it was when it came out. And [many people are] just getting around to seeing it on Netflix. Even though the film itself is a fixed, linear, traditional piece of media that has a beginning and end, the topic in the community and the interest goes on in perpetuity."

Which is exactly how the Take Part community is able to connect the dots from the Food Inc. followers to those who might also be interested in related issues of water and therefore Last Call. "Many of the NGOs care about a lot of the same kinds of issues, too," says Boettcher. "There’s a community there that cares that we continue to engage. Their interest might start with a film, but it doesn’t end with it."

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