Advocacy Guide: Creating a Successful Action Alert

Posted August 7, 2017

Action alerts are a critical tool for public advocacy on behalf of threatened scholars. Use this guide to craft an effective appeal that motivates supporters and stakeholders to act.

An action alert is a standard human rights tool for educating supporters and encouraging action.

What is an action alert?

An action alert is a written notification, publicly circulated by email, social media, or website posting, containing information about a particular issue or situation of concern. It contains a request to the recipient to…

  1. write, fax, email, call, or meet with the media, policymakers or other key stakeholders about a situation of concern in order to…
  2. encourage the stakeholders to undertake a specific, helpful action, such as to conduct an investigation or to intervene to guarantee the safety of an individual at risk.

In other words, action alerts are used to ask a second party (the recipient) for help in asking a third party (the decision-maker) to take helpful action on a specific subject. The power of an action alert lies in the collective action of a large number of individuals, so they are intended to encourage as many people as possible to participate. SAR maintains ongoing action alerts on behalf of a number of wrongfully prosecuted and imprisoned scholars.

How to create a successful action alert

The most successful action alerts – those that generate the largest number of actions – provide all the information necessary for the recipient to act quickly and with confidence. The following steps provide a guide to creating a successful action alert:

1. Determine purpose and suitability

When Prof. Homa Hoodfar was imprisoned, action alerts were an important part of the academic community’s response on her behalf.

Before drafting an action alert, consider whether public action is the best way to address the situation. Public action may be very effective in cases requiring urgent action on behalf of individuals who are missing or facing an immediate danger. Public action also helps to combat the isolation and/or lack of awareness that accompanies many situations of concern. Some situations, however, may be better addressed through “quieter” or less public channels of communication, such as private letters or lobbying of key decision-makers. Still other situations may be worsened by public dissemination of information, particularly when public attention may lead to an increase in violence against individuals at risk or their family, friends, or colleagues.

Always assess the situation to ensure that risks of negative consequences are minimized and do not outweigh the expected benefits of the alert. Where possible, contact the individual’s family, friends, colleagues, and/or legal counsel to assess the potential impact of public action.

2. Research the situation

SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitor identifies and tracks attacks on academic freedom.

Successful action alerts provide the recipient with a high degree of confidence in the accuracy and quality of the information provided, increasing the likelihood that recipients will act on the alert. In order to achieve this confidence, research the situation thoroughly and provide a clear and concise summary of the situation. Whenever possible and as appropriate, cite sources of allegations and information, gather background information from primary and secondary sources, and do not rely too heavily on one or two sources. It is essential to use sources that are trustworthy and reliable, especially when primary sources are difficult or impossible to obtain safely. Considering beginning with the information available on SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitor.

3. Identify stakeholders and decision-makers

Focus your alert on efforts to influence key decision-makers, such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Before drafting the alert, identify the individuals and groups that have a stake in the situation. Possible stakeholders include:

  • any individuals directly involved in the situation, such as family, friends, and colleagues
  • affiliated academic institutions
  • NGOs
  • faculty associations or unions
  • student associations or unions
  • local, national, regional, or international academic communities
  • local or national governments
  • the public

Out of this group, identify the decision-makers who are most likely to be influenced by the e-mails, phone calls, and other advocacy actions resulting from the alert. For corporate decision-makers (e.g. a national government), identify specific individuals who might be most helpful in producing the desired outcome. Focus the action alert on efforts to influence these decision-makers. Feel free to keep SAR apprised of your efforts so that staff can assist with this step.

In “Intellectual-HRDs and claims for academic freedom under human rights law,” SAR’s Robert Quinn and Jesse Levine argue that existing human rights law protects academic freedom.

4. Identify applicable standards

Identify and cite relevant academic freedom and/or human rights protections to show the legal and moral basis for the requested action. Whenever practical, identify and cite national level standards for academic freedom and human rights before citing to relevant regional and global standards. Where national standards are unavailable or insufficient, cite regional or global standards to which the nation is bound (i.e. a human rights treaty that has been ratified) or to the more general instruments which apply universally (i.e. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

5. Draft using appropriate language and tone:

In drafting the alert, use language that is firm, respectful, and appropriate for a diverse audience, including university communities, government representatives, NGOs, and members of the public. Avoid overly aggressive, confrontational, or emotional language and punctuation (i.e. extensive exclamation marks, bold, or all capital letters) that can overshadow the message.

6. Include all necessary content:

Although alerts vary by situation and location, most action alerts include most or all of the following:

  • Title or subject line that is concise and powerful but not overly sensational
  • Date of issuance
  • Source and contact information: In order to provide the recipient with a high degree of confidence in the accuracy and quality of the information, it should be 100% clear who is issuing the alert.
  • Brief opening paragraph that introduces the situation in one or two short, clear sentences
  • Call for action clearly stating the steps the recipient should take and what actions should be asked of decision-makers
  • Relevant academic freedom or human rights standards
  • Detailed background information including a summary of the situation, any prior alerts or actions taken, and possible sources for more information
  • Contact information for decision-makers to whom recipients should direct their requests for action: Whenever possible, include email addresses when asking recipients to send emails; fax numbers when asking for faxes; and mailing addresses when asking for posted letters. Using appropriate titles and proper names is a sign of respect and professionalism (e.g. The Honorable Ambassador).
  • Talking points or draft language for recipients to use: If the action alert asks the recipient to write a letter or email, provide a sample for convenience, accuracy, and consistency of message. Recipients will be able to act quickly, increasing the response rate and effectiveness of the action alert.
7. Circulate

Get the word out by email, social media, and through in-person advocacy events such as tabling. See SAR’s ideas for successful student advocacy for more information.

Strong, simple, and clear messaging will increase engagement with your action alert.

8. Evaluate

Ask for copies of emails, letters, and faxes sent in response to the action alert so that you know which recipients have taken action and which decision-makers have been contacted. Take time to evaluate the results of each action alert sent, including response rates, quality of responses (e.g. did the responses help the case to move forward or did they detract from your work), feedback from recipients and decision-makers, success in triggering the decision-maker action requested, and any resulting outcomes, positive or negative. Adjust future action alerts accordingly.

9. Follow Up

Keep records of all responses from recipients and decision-makers. Report positive case developments when appropriate and involve respondents in future action alerts and campaigns. Treat each action alert as one part of long-term relationship-building with key stakeholders and decision-makers. Finally, debrief with SAR about insights gained from the action alert process.

Read More:

Author Scholars at Risk
In Publication Years: 2017
In Audience: Member Institutions
In Resource Types: Student & Faculty Resources