This is why your organization needs Message Houses
“Disinformation Is No. 1 Threat As Election Approaches, WEF Report Finds,” reads the headline of a January 2024 article by Forbes. Disinformation is one of the biggest challenges countries face as elections approach, and one of the main targets of these attacks are civil society organizations (CSOs). CSOs are often perceived as strong opposition to those in power, making them vulnerable to attacks, undermining their credibility or legitimacy in the eyes of the public. However, the existence of CSOs is crucial to the survival of democracy and the protection of civil rights, so their existence must always be protected.

Knowing the importance of CSOs’ roles in safeguarding democracy, C4C was asked to assist some CSOs in Indonesia to counteract disinformation attacks by developing Message Houses (Rumah Pesan). This initiative aims to strengthen CSOs' ability to counter disinformation and maintain information integrity during elections.

Recognizing the 4 most common attempts to delegitimize CSO

Civil society is under pressure as governments in many countries seek to limit civic space. Attacks on CSOs include legal actions, physical attacks, and attempts to delegitimize civil society. In delegitimization, there are four main allegations that are often directed at CSOs:

1. “CSOs do not represent the voice of the people”
Governments accuse CSOs of appointing themselves without direct elections. Hungary restricts foreign-funded CSOs on the grounds that only elected governments represent the people.

2. “CSOs receive foreign-funding, which means they are pushing the donor’s agenda”
CSOs are accused of serving the interests of foreign donors rather than national interests. For example, the Modi government in India has called foreign-funded environmental NGOs “anti-nationalist”, similar to what happened in Egypt and Turkey.

3. “CSOs are the vehicles of political actors”
This narrative is saying that CSOs possess a hidden political agenda, and their affairs with the opposition is considered a proof. This aims to cast doubt on the integrity of CSOs by portraying them as institutions that pretend to be impartial or driven by idealism to defend the interests of the people.

4. “CSOs are a bunch of elites. They are not rooted in the community”
Critics often accuse foreign-educated, well-paid, and well-traveled activists of creating the perception that CSOs don’t understand the conditions and aspirations of communities first-hand.

These delegitimization attacks can take place through social media or the mainstream media, and organizations can more easily (if they wish to) provide an official organizational response. But the reality is that these attacks can also be directed at CSO staff, either by government actors or distant relatives or acquaintances. In these situations, staff who are not equipped to respond may be overwhelmed and consequently less able to rebut or respond in a way that effectively defuses the accusations.

So how can CSOs equip their staff and a select few partners to effectively respond to direct delegitimization attacks? The key is to create a “Message House” and then train staff and selected partners on how to use it.

“Message House” as a functional tool to ward off attacks

A Message House is a tool that a person uses to guide them when delivering a message, usually verbally. This message can be in the form of a statement or as an answer to someone else's question.

Since it is usually used in oral communication, it is not practical for the messenger to carry a long script. It would be more helpful to have a “cheat sheet” that contains the “formula” for creating a message. As a “cheat sheet”, of course the Message House should be short enough and easy to refer to whenever necessary.

Anatomy of a Message House
Like any structure of a solid house, the Message House provides a framework for crafting consistent and purposeful messages.

There are 3 (three) elements in a Message House:
  1. The roof as the core message
  2. Columns as supporting statements
  3. The foundation as proof points that support the supporting statements
To formulate the core message, ask this question: “If the recipient can only remember one sentence out of all my statements or answers, what would it be?”. The answer is the core message, which is the one sentence that you not only want to plant in the recipient's mind, but that she or he will ultimately agree with after the message is delivered.

Supporting columns or messages are statements that make the recipient more likely to agree with the core message. To formulate supporting messages, the trick is to anticipate what questions the recipients will ask once they hear the core message. Depending on the content of the message, the questions are usually :

  • How?
  • How come? / How so?

The most appropriate way to identify proof points is to write the supporting messages first. For each supporting message, ask, “What facts does the receiver of the message need to know in order to believe this statement?” Choose facts that are only relevant to the questioner, not to you.

C4C can assist your organization in developing communication strategy to counter legitimacy attacks

C4C has 9 years of experience in helping more than a hundred CSOs in Indonesia in designing a communications strategy. Given the increasingly narrowing space for CSOs to operate, support to anticipate disinformation attacks is crucial. In this case, we can provide the necessary assistance. In addition, we also provide training for the organization's staff on the ground in answering questions or responding effectively to attacks.

Interested in consulting with us? Reach out to our email or simply tap the button below. We’re happy to provide a free 1-hour consultation to help you develop the right communication strategy for your organization.
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