IFEX Alerts

Fifteen Steps to Designing Effective Alerts

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1. Establish authenticity

Include clear information about the sponsoring organisation and provide the reader with several ways of contacting you: e-mail address, postal address, website address, phone number, etc. Including this contact information is only logical since you want people to respond to your alert, and they may need to contact you. There's no substitute for clearly explaining who you are and giving people a way to reach you.

IFEX alerts always clearly identify the originating member organisation of the network and follow a standardised format and structure which subscribers can immediately identify as an "IFEX" product.

2. Put a date on it

Even if an alert appears to have become outdated and faded away, it can stay in someone's mailbox for months or years and then suddenly get a new life as the mailbox's owner forwards it to a new set of lists. Do not count on the message header to convey the date (or anything else); people who forward Internet messages frequently strip off the header. Even better, give your recommended action a clearly stated time-out date, e.g., "Take this action by February 17, 2009". If you think there will be follow-up actions, or if you want to convey that this is part of an ongoing campaign, say so. That way, people will contact you or look out for your next alert.

Following the same principle, when assembling alerts for the IFEX network, we also ask member organisations to add dates within the text of their alerts. This means substituting words like "today", "yesterday" or "last week" with the specific date to which they are referring. Even if you have a dateline at the beginning of an alert, please include dates for the key events described. Since the audience for IFEX alerts is international in nature, this is one more method of helping to avoid ambiguity or confusion in communicating the facts of a case. Remember, your alerts and our final version of your alerts cross time zones, therefore clearly indicating within the body of the alert the dates of incidents is crucial.

3. Include clear beginning and ending markers

You can't prevent people from modifying your alert as they pass it along. Fortunately, this usually only happens accidentally, as extra commentary accumulates at the top and bottom of the message as it gets forwarded. Put a bold row of dashes or something similar at the top and bottom of your alert so that extra material appears as such. That way it will be very clear what you and your credibility are standing behind.

4. Make it self-contained

Don't assume that your audience will have any context beyond what they get in your alert. Your alert will probably be read by people who have never heard of you or the victim of the FoE violation. Define your terms and provide background information, or at least some simple instructions for getting useful background materials. You might consider making the e-mailed alert relatively short, focusing principally on the new information you wish to convey, but include the URL for a web page that provides the full details.

When preparing an alert for distribution on the IFEX network, IFEX member should always provide the full names of political organisations or movements, or of government bodies, not just their acronyms. Even acronyms that are widely understood within a particular country may be completely unknown by the majority of international readers. When this information is missing, Alerts Coordinators at the Clearing House will make every effort to find the complete information for inclusion in the alert, but this only adds an extra step to an already time-consuming process, and may also result in errors that are embarrassing for both the member and the Clearing House. For this reason, we ask IFEX members to assist us by providing the most complete information possible.

In addition, when preparing an alert based on an ongoing case which has already been documented, it is useful to review past alerts distributed on the IFEX network to see what has been written on the case earlier and to include a "background information" section in the alert which provides a chronological summary of the case up to that point. Not only does this help to ensure that an alert is self-contained but it also helps to ensure that all the IFEX membership is on the same page concerning the facts of a case, further helping to avoid any contradictions or misunderstandings.

5. Make it easy to understand and easy to read

It is crucial to begin with a good, clear headline that summarises the issue and the recommended action. Use plain language, not jargon. Check your spelling. Use short sentences, simple grammar and gender-neutral language. Choose words that will be understood worldwide, not just in your own country or culture. Solicit comments on a draft before sending it out.

Use a simple, clear layout with lots of white space. Break up long paragraphs. Use bullets and section headings to avoid visual monotony. If your organisation plans to send out action alerts regularly, use a distinctive design so that everyone can recognise your "brand name" instantly. Strict formatting criteria should be adhered to.

6. Get your facts straight

Your message will circle the earth, so double-check. Errors can be disastrous. Even a small mistake can make it easy for your opponents to dismiss your alerts as "rumours" or "exaggerations." Once you do discover a mistake, it becomes difficult to issue a correction, and the correction will probably not get forwarded to every place that the original message did.

(NOTE: The IFEX network does issue corrections to alerts when warranted, though we recognise that corrections do not entirely undo the loss of credibility that results when serious and avoidable factual errors are made by members.)

7. Ask yourself if you want the alert to circulate at all

If your alerts concern highly sensitive matters, for example the status of specifically named political prisoners, then you will probably want to know precisely who is getting your notices, and how, and in what context. If so, include a prominent notice instructing the alert's recipients to NOT forward it (i.e. you may sometimes choose to distribute the sensitive information solely as an IFEX internal alert, appeal, request, etc.)

8. Beware of second-hand alerts

Although it is uncommon for someone to modify the text of your alert, sometimes people will send out their own paraphrase of an alert, perhaps based on something they heard verbally. These second-hand alerts usually contain exaggerations and other factual inaccuracies, and as a result they can easily be used to discredit your alert. If you become aware of inaccurate variants of your alert, you should immediately notify relevant mailing lists of the existence of these second-hand alerts. Explain clearly what the facts are and aren't, implore the community not to circulate the misleading alerts, and provide pointers to accurate information, including a copy of your own alert. This action has two virtues: first, it may help to suppress the mistaken reports; and second, it positions you as a responsible person who cares about the truth.

9. Be realistic in your expectations of support and unexaggerated in your requests and claims

Do not say "forward this to everyone you know". Do not overstate. Do not plead. Do not say "Please Act NOW!!!". Do not scream about the urgency of telling everyone in the world about your issue. You are not trying to address "everyone" but rather a targeted group of people who are inclined to care about the issue. And if the issue really is time-critical then just explain why, in sober language. Do not get obsessed with the immediate situation at hand. Your message may help avoid some short-term calamity, but it should also contribute to a much longer-term process of building support for freedom of expression. Maintaining a sense of that larger context will help you and your readers from becoming dispirited in the event that you lose the immediate battle.

10. Avoid confrontational language

Unsubstantiated claims or vague hypotheses are to be avoided; they end up causing more harm than good to the victim and hurt the credibility of the information provided. Whenever necessary, in the context of urgent appeals, IFEX members make mention of the key points in international treaties signed or ratified by the State responsible for the violation reported on, such as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, free expression provisions in the country's constitution, etc.

By the same token, avoid using anonymous sources when preparing an alert. Always strive to ensure that a statement or expressed point of view which you include in the text of your alert can be attributed to a credible source, and identify that source explicitly in your alert. This is especially true in the case of political or other potentially contentious statements. If it is necessary to quote a confidential source, explain why the source requested confidentiality. Normally, only a well-grounded fear that the source may in turn become a victim of assault or imprisonment justifies not identifying them.

Avoid using overly politicised language that may be interpreted as extremist outside of your country, and therefore cost you, and the victim of the violation you are reporting, valuable international support. "The mayor suing the newspaper has close ties to international mining and petroleum companies operating in the country." Is more convincing to an international audience than "The mayor is a corrupt tool of Western imperialism."

11. Do not use a chain-letter petition

A chain-letter petition is an action alert that includes a list of names at the end; it invites people to add their own name to the list, send in the petition if their name is the 30th or 60th etc, and forward the resulting alert-plus-signature-list to everyone they know. This idea sounds great in the abstract, but it really doesn't work. The problem is that most of the signatures will never reach their destination since the chain will fizzle out before reaching the next multiple of thirty in length. What's even worse, a small proportion of the signatures will be received in the legislator's office many times, thus annoying the staff and persuading them that they're dealing with an incompetent group that can never hold them accountable.

Each IFEX alert is targeted to a specific list of members and subscribers. The hope is that people are not overwhelmed by the sheer number of alerts, which can often reach 60 or more per week from all regions of the world. It is useful to have targeted lists which follow a number of criteria, including country, continent, profession, type of free expression violation, etc.

12. Don't overdo it

Alerts might become as unwelcome as direct-mail advertising. Postpone that day by being selective about the alerts you send. If your organisation or another organisation has already reported on the case, make sure that the new information or analysis you are communicating about the case is near the top of your alert, not buried at the bottom.

13. Urge people to inform you of their actions

If you are calling on people to send a fax to a government official's office, for example, you should provide an e-mail address and invite them to send you a brief message. Explain that you will use these messages to count the number of callers your alert has generated, and that this information will be invaluable when you speak with the legislator's staff later on. Only do this, though, if your mail server is capable of handling 50,000 messages in a short period. You might want to check this out with your service provider beforehand.

NOTE: we don't do this at the IFEX Clearing House because of volume concerns and server limitations, though we recognise the crucial value and need for greater feedback from members and subscribers. In fact, determining the impact of an alert with absolute clarity remains difficult, since feedback from letter writers remains haphazard.

14. Don't mistake e-mail for organising

An alert is sometimes only a component in a broader process of organising to defend the right to freedom of expression. If you want to build a hardy, durable movement to defend freedom of expression, at some point you'll have to gather people together. The Internet is a useful tool for organising, but it's just one tool and one medium among many that you will need, and you should evaluate it largely in terms of its contribution to larger organising goals. Do the people you reach through alerts move up into more active positions in your movement? Do you draw them into conferences, talk to them by phone, meet them in person, become accountable to them to provide specific information and answer questions? If not, why do you keep reaching out to them?

15. (optional) Ask your reader to take a simple, clearly defined, rationally chosen action

For example, you might ask people to contact their own government or the government of the country in which the offence occurred and express a certain view on an issue. In this case, you should provide as much information as necessary to facilitate that contact, and a brief summary of the points to raise. Decide whether to ask for e-mail messages (which can be huge in number but near-zero in effect), written letters to be faxed or mailed (which will be fewer but more effective), or phone calls (which fall in between). Consider other options as well: perhaps the sole purpose of your alert is to solicit contacts from a small number of committed activists, or to gather information, or to start a mailing list to organise further actions.

In addition, take some time to evaluate which representative or person in a position of authority you wish to target. Rather than providing a long list of contact information for authorities who may or may not be in a position to intervene in a case, identify the most appropriate individual or office to contact on a case-by-case basis. Pointing your audience in the appropriate direction is a preliminary step in making sure your alert will have the maximum impact.


Some of the above is based on Designing Effective Action Alerts for the Internet, by Phil Agre, Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California 90095-1520, USA, pagre@ucla.edu, http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre, 24 April 1999 version. Copyright 1994-1998, all rights reserved. Used by permission.
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