I’ve recently heard a new buzzword; problematize an issue. We used to use the word escalate, but problematize is now the new kid in town. It boils down to the same thing; how to make an issue an issue. How can governments, media and society at large recognize something as a problem? There are of course different degrees to which you can (or even want) shit to hit the fan. In this issue, we are aiming at the highest level of escalation. Here are some pointers on how to escalate, oops, I mean problematize an issue.
Using the numbers
It always helps if you have the numbers to show how big a problem is. Being able to show that 10.000 jobs will be lost is a sure way of getting attention. Important to note that while you do have some room to frame a problem bigger than it actually is, you will not get away with lying. In general, lying is a bad policy in lobbying, but with numbers especially it will erode your credibility fast. Coughing up the numbers becomes increasingly more important in a world with economic models, impact assessments and cost-benefit analysis. But even in a more political arena, politicians want to know that they are not running for someone’s pet project. So do your homework and do some counting.
National media and Social media
While easier said than done, nothing signals a national problem more than getting on the 8th o’clock news. The same goes for headlines and national newspapers. You will not cut it with an op-ed in a local newspaper. The same goes for social media. A couple of tweets will do absolutely nothing but a concerted and coordinated action to send out hundreds of tweets with a corresponding hashtag does help. Especially if you can become a trending topic.
Individual cases and examples
Everybody loves a good underdog, both media as well as politicians.
Counter to my previous argument you can also go small. The media loves to hear personal stories about people’s problems with government and policy. Like the nurse that isn’t able to go to work because they canceled the bus in her village. Or the student who didn’t get to graduate because of an administrative error. It’s easy to cause outrage by zooming in on an individual problem. Also, it helps twice as much if you then have numbers to show that this is not an isolated case.
Make it person for the decision-maker
If the minister or state secretary doesn’t want to help out, drag him/her personality into the issue. Like pointing out the problem in his/her hometown. Or make people close to him/her reach out in order to show that this issue cannot be ignored. You can also point out that this will be a part of his/her legacy; “Under your tenure, we lost 10.000 jobs”. “Are you going to be the minister that buried or saved the steel industry”? There is a certain risk of backfiring, you don’t want to minister to hate your guts. Also don’t only use negative reinforcement. Make sure it is understood that all the credits will go to the politician which is able to solve your problem and don’t forget to wholeheartedly and publicly thank them for it.
Stage a protest
Nothing signals more that something is a problem than a protest. And of course you want to have a protest of groups towards which the public is sympathetic. A rally of lobbyists or Youtube influencers will not do. Moreover, don’t use a protest as a last resort. It is very intuitive to reach for a protest when all other things fail. But the chances that it will have an effect are very small. Instead, stage a protest somewhere at three-quarters of the process so there is still room for negotiations and for things to pan out. Of course, try not to turn it into a 6th of January storming the capital kind of protest.
More is more
Finally, when problematizing an issue more is more. Don’t hold back. The death of problematizing an issue is a nuance. It is a pathos that we are after. One of the problems I had when escalating/problematizing an issue is that people want to water down the message. Don’t. Convey to your partners that the time is up. Also, don’t be afraid to send more emails and apps to the same people than you would do normally. People need to feel the pressure.