Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The uses of printed materials in political organizing

Sounds like a boring topic, huh? Well, maybe, but since I am spending this week setting up several hundred volunteers all over the country to distribute an anti-war newspaper, it's what I am thinking about. (Want some free peace papers? Give me a holler. For more info, look here.)

That there should be any question about whether using print materials in grass roots organizing is valuable seems a very contemporary question. From the invention of the printing press and moveable type until very recently, political organizers' first thought was to get their pitch on paper, whether through a broadside, a handbill, or a pamphlet. Think Tom Paine.

But contemporary learning styles have shifted to emphasize audio and video, while at the same time internet communications deluge most of us with more to read than we can possibly consume. And novice organizers, often, don't think of using printed materials to help them in their work -- it gets beaten into them that they must talk with people, make contact, sign them up. Seldom do they get taught how to use paper to help the organizing.

One of the volunteers distributing the anti-war paper, an experienced organizer, said to me the other day: "I really like working with print media." So do I -- here's why:
  • Distributing a printed piece about your candidate, program or campaign gives you legitimacy. If the piece doesn't look sloppy or completely ugly, the recipient registers, minimally, that you are serious enough to try to make your case. That's a start.
  • A display of multiple lit pieces can make you look positively authoritative when staffing a table at an event.
  • Using a printed piece, guarantees that your own campaign personnel, staff and volunteers, have at least some exposure to a unified message. Whether anyone reads or repeats it is another question.
  • A printed piece can be used to convey to a particular constituency that you care about them. For example, as I pointed out yesterday, Democrats blew an opportunity by not leafleting the immigrant Labor Day march about Phil Angelides' candidacy. A flier for someone else's event, especially a flier in the language of the people you want to reach, sends a powerful signal that you care about the people to whom you hand it.
  • One of the anti-war newspaper volunteers summed a lot of this up for me today: "Often it is tough enough to pull together a weekly anti-war action without having to be conversational and concise. The paper, War Times, is very useful for back filling some of my social dysfunction."
Are there downsides to using print materials? Sure. Producing good lit pieces is hard -- if you have to do it all, when you've finally got the flier out, it is easy to feel you've accomplished something, when in fact you've only broken the ice for the real organizing. Volunteers sent out to staff a table with a great lit supply will stand behind that table and never talk to anyone unless you push them. And any experienced organizer will tell you that most volunteers would rather do all-day lit drops on doorsteps than spend a couple of hours actually knocking on doors and talking with their peers. Effective grassroots organizing does require interaction, conversation. But that is no reason not to help yourself with persuasive print materials.

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