I totally believe that the vast majority of mainstream Muslims are repulsed by ISIS more than anyone else, and that they are disgusted by the way ISIS distorts their fundamental religious beliefs. I also acknowledge that Muslim religious leaders issue “strong and unambiguous” statements every time there is a violent attack by ISIS. I am aware that more than 120 Muslim scholars have signed a letter denouncing ISIS as “un-Islamic.” I know that they have attempted a “not in my name” grassroots twitter campaign, re-invigorated after the November 13 Paris attacks, to allow individual Muslims to get behind the message that ISIS does not represent their beliefs.
BUT, to anyone who thinks that Muslim leaders have done enough to communicate their anti-ISIS messages to the rest of the world: Give Me A Break! If Muslim leaders earnestly believe they are conducting an effective PR campaign, they either are deceiving themselves, aren’t trying hard enough, or totally naïve about how to communicate.
Here are five critical steps Muslim leadership should undertake immediately as part of a vital PR strategy:
Make a real commitment to communicate with an impact.
A story in today’s Washington Post chronicles how pro-ISIS and anti-Muslim advocates have posted to Facebook two-year old videos of celebrations of cricket victories in Pakistan under the false headline: “Muslims Around The World Celebrate The Islamic Victory in Paris France.” There were some 500,000 views of that false image before it was taken down. Other similar tactics are used constantly to besmirch Muslims. The consequences of such belligerent communications tactics are also chronicled in the article: over the weekend, a Canadian mosque was set ablaze and two others in Florida were threatened; on Monday, a member of an Islamic Center outside of Austin arrived at his mosque to find a torn up Koran covered in feces at the entrance; the next day, a hijab-wearing Toronto woman going to pick up her son from school was punched and kicked by two men who yelled slurs, tried to rip off her hijab and stole her cellphone and some cash. Does anyone believe that such visible acts of hatred will lessen as ISIS steps-up its war efforts? It’s much more likely they will increase both in frequency and intensity. What Muslim leaders must understand is that the safety of Islamic men, women and children throughout the world is at risk because ISIS has been successful in its effort to position all Muslims as terrorists and mainstream Muslim leaders have been ineffective in countering that. They must understand that their messages aren’t going to be heard and accepted just because they may be accurate. They must accept the reality of what it takes to get their story understood: a dedicated, full-time, non-stop communications campaign. Nothing less.
Get your act together by coalescing and coordinating all pro-Muslim and anti-ISIS factions under one brand.
The fact that there isn’t a single and central Muslim organization or leader similar to the role the Pope serves for the Catholics should not be allowed to dilute the comprehensive effort that will be necessary to wage an effective PR campaign on their behalf. They need to create a new organization under a new name that can promote a new image not only for themselves but against ISIS. Why? If anyone now has a desire to research or communicate with anti-ISIS Muslims, where do they go? In the U.S., you know that if you have a concern about discrimination you can go to the ACLU – a well-branded and widely known organization. If you are concerned about anti-Semitism, go to the Anti-Defamation League. The NAACP is of course similarly known and branded. Name just about any political or philosophical belief or special interest group and you can in the next breath name the advocacy group(s) that supports their beliefs. Now: name the group that supports Muslim beliefs. I’m certain they exist and I’m also certain they honestly believe they are doing yeoman’s service. But they are unknown. So, right now, fund-raising should be centralized and maximized to make such an organization known and powerful. Redundant administrative functions among various organizations should be eliminated for the benefit of increased efficiency. The news media should have one go-to organization where reporters know they can always obtain accurate and well thought-out facts and viewpoints rationally presented. There is an urgent need for such central leadership. Where is it?
Accept the fundamental first law of communications strategy: Institutionalize your messaging.
It is such a commonplace rule now that kids running for president of their fifth grade class understand it: develop a few key messages that you want your stakeholders to understand and agree with, and then stay on point. The first job of the new Muslim leadership group I envision would be to create a “Message Bible” that defines the way they want to be perceived and maybe 3-5 (or even less) key messages that they will repeat and repeat until they become well-known. What are the key messages now? What do Muslim leaders hope that their most important audiences would reiterate when asked what they think of Muslims? There should be knee-jerk responses to those questions, but they don’t exist. That needs to be remedied immediately.
Get real about the components of a modern communications strategy.
You aren’t going to confront your issues effectively if you think that 120 Muslim leaders signing and issuing a letter condemning ISIS is a powerful tool. Maybe at some point in history it would have been effective. Get Real! Look at what ISIS does: massive and effective use of social media; YouTube channels; PR events; dramatic spokespeople saying and doing dramatic things; aspirational statements about their vision. And they don’t do it every so often when they feel the need, but 24 X 7 X 365. That’s what is required at a minimum for you. But, because the mainstream Muslim communications campaign is so far behind the curve, you should also launch advertising using every distribution channel including TV, online, traditional print media, even the walls of baseball stadiums and other opportunities that assert your key messages. Anything less will fail to confront the challenge.
That’s just the basics.
There’s a lot more. Assign a few really good, knowledgeable people to be your spokespeople. Media train them. They should be your face to your stakeholders. They should become known, trusted and attain an almost “personal” relationship with your mass audiences. Create a fast response team so that whenever there is a lie promoted by ISIS or others, you don’t need to take hours or days to react, but can confront the matter virtually immediately, getting your message to the public before the lies prosper. Just observe how the political campaigns do it, and emulate that. Build strategic relationships with other groups and leading individuals who can stand beside you or issue their own responses on your behalf when appropriate. Think of events you can create and produce that would provide opportunities for people to show support – and for the global news media to cover so as to amplify the event. Think BIG! Think, for example, of a rally that is held at the same time around the world – a variation on “Hands Across America”on a worldwide basis or anti-ISIS/pro-tolerance concerts that would be similar to the concerts that were held for the end hunger campaigns.
Whatever you do, you have to improve your current communications strategy. What you are doing now is no good, especially when judged juxtaposed to the need. And the price you have paid for your impotent campaign (if you can even use the word “campaign”) is just too great. Worse: as the global war with ISIS escalates, the price you pay will become even more costly in many ways. There is too much at risk for your PR failures. The need is now.