For all of the notable gains made by progressives in recent years, the UK faces some big challenges. From acute climate catastrophe to the housing crisis and the chipping away of migrant and refugee rights, our economic and political systems drive destruction, exclusion and exploitation.
Coupled with this is a media landscape lacking diversity and inclusion. Characterised by strongly partisan national broadcasters and press, and dominated by white middle class men, the UK media often lacks voices on these key economic, political and social issues – or does not give them any attention at all.
The New Economy Organisers Network (NEON) is a network of over 650 UK organisers from different trade unions, grassroots groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based campaigns, political parties, civil society groups and movements from across the country.
NEON runs training and supports campaigns to help progressives win social, economic and environmental justice. Its national Spokesperson Network is a programme run to substantially boost the number of progressive, diverse voices in the mainstream media.
Having set up the project in London in 2015, NEON is now launching its North West Spokesperson Network. Applications for the Regional Spokesperson training are open until 31 August on NEON’s website.
The Meteor spoke to several current NEON spokespersons to ask them what their experience of the programme has been and what advice they would offer potential applicants for the North West Spokesperson Network.
Amreen Qureshi works as a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North and also volunteers with Refugee Action. Her work focuses on migrant and refugee rights. She works on a one-to-one basis with refugee women settling in Greater Manchester who have already received recourse to public funds, housing and education, helping them carve out careers to live real, meaningful lives in the city region.
Amreen says it can be really nerve-racking speaking as a progressive spokesperson on national media about topics which polarise public opinion. “The fact you could be entering a space where people use anti-immigrant rhetoric is definitely intimidating.”
The core objective of NEON’s media training is to give spokespeople the confidence to access these cultural spaces. Spokespeople receive two days of training, where they are taught how to pitch themselves to outlets, techniques for messaging and storytelling, interview preparation, handling hostile questions and non-verbal communication. Participants practice a series of different interview formats in front of a camera with framing experts, producers and journalists.
NEON places great emphasis on messaging which humanises and encourages empathy. “It’s all about making language sound real, that we are talking about real human beings”, said Amreen.
Rick Burgess is the Co-founder of the Manchester chapter of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). Another NEON spokesperson, he echoed Amreen’s sentiment on humanising messaging. “NEON almost looks at who is scapegoated, demonised and caricatured in the media. Then they get people from those demonised groups in the media so that they can put their case across.”
DPAC operates on the basis of a social model of disability, supporting the implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of People With Disabilities, independent living and inclusion in society where people are disabled by the society and its barriers — society that doesn’t accommodate, adapt to or include people with mental or physical conditions.
NEON provides some essential skills for spokespeople such as Rick. The main takeaway for him is the confidence to know that he doesn’t need to constantly speak in a TV studio; to pace himself and take his time and to communicate with an “everyday person, like Marge Simpson or an uncle. Sometimes in activism it is easy to become very involved with the fine-tuned information and acronyms that don’t make sense to anybody outside your world”, he says.
Kate Fraser is the co-manager for Coalition of Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance (GMWSA), an alliance of eight women’s centres providing support to vulnerable and marginalised women who have had some involvement with the criminal justice system across ten Greater Manchester local authorities.
Kate’s previous public speaking experience was mostly for specialist audiences and the training provided by NEON to her as a spokesperson helped to sharpen her message for wider audiences.
Now when Kate does an interview she understands techniques like how to deflect a question and creating a ‘hook’. She mentions that the confidence to do media interviews could be particularly beneficial for grassroots organisers and people becoming active for the first time through Covid-19 mutual aid groups and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Describing the training as “diverse, stimulating, terrifying but also exhilarating,” Kate explains that the process participants follow in the training, of carrying out exercises and drilling their key messages, helped with nerves and made the frantic situation that a real interview can be, feel more manageable.
After the two-day training there are then monthly follow-on sessions which range from interview practice at a BBC studio, to networking events with journalists and peer-review sessions.
As well as helping spokespeople develop their communications and media skills, NEON finds opportunities for them to speak on radio and TV. The trained spokespeople receive a weekly roundup of news topics from NEON, giving them an opportunity to pitch a key message for topics. NEON will then help spokespeople get in touch with producers and journalists, offering expert advice to boost their profiles and enhance their top-line messages.
Crucially, NEON does this without compromising spokespeople’s safety. Spokespeople will not be encouraged to do interviews which do not have any positive outcome at the end. It takes seriously its duty of care to spokespeople.
NEON has helped its spokespeople develop strong relationships with the media, helping to further diversify access to cultural spaces. As a direct result of involvement with NEON, both Kate and Rick have developed a relationship with ITV Granada. While the corporate media landscape is changing very slowly, NEON is at the forefront of that change.
Rick says that if the NEON programme didn’t exist now, it would have to be invented, because what is currently out there in terms of representation is “pale, male, stale.”
For those applying for the training, Kate recommends mentioning why they are applying and what message they want to put to the media, instead of focusing on the mechanics of the training like only wanting to learn media skills.
The spokesperson network also aims to create a real sense of community among the participants. “The world of organising and working in niche topics such as women’s incarceration can make one feel alone,” Kate says. The ways in which the group has kept in touch and meeting for an occasional drink following the training has been a positive surprise.
Rick explained how the group keeps in touch via WhatsApp. Whenever a spokesperson appears on the media, the group sends messages of support, in particular after hostile or difficult interviews.
Despite the multiple challenges laid bare by Covid-19 pandemic for individuals and organisations alike, NEON is on track to organise its Regional Spokesperson training in the North West. The kinds of skills and support offered by the Network are ever more needed.
Alex King and Noora Mykkanen
Applications for the Regional Spokesperson training are open until 31 August and can be found here.