Emilio Alvarez is helping to ensure that Mexico's commercial media are engaging with the country's current struggle for democracy. He does this by enabling citizen organizations to utilize the media, and each other, more effectively. In so doing, he is reshaping the field of "social communications" in Mexico.
The New Idea
Political events taking place recently in Mexico have helped citizens become more conscious and aware. They are steadily becoming more demanding and are seeking to participate directly in building their own society. One of the most important aspects of this process is the formation of effective citizens' organizations to counter the historic failings and endemic corruption of political parties and government. Through his organization, the National Center for Social Communication, Emilio Alvarez is providing services to help citizens groups and the commercial media to become effective partners in the democratization of Mexico. The Center helps nongovernmental organizations to become professional communicators–to have and to implement a coherent media strategy as an integral part of their work. It opens the commercial media to the "newsworthiness" of the emerging citizen sector through a range of creative "citizen sector engagements" with journalists. Finally, the Center serves as a highly specialized news agency that collects, organizes and disseminates strategic information relating to key social indicators–such as human rights violations–or public opinion on national policy. As part of this information service, it is actively promoting the use of new communications technology to citizen organizations as a powerful tool for social action and mobilization. For example, the Center led the effort to utilize media in the national citizen referendum in 1995 on the government policy toward the Chiapas Zapatista rebellion. Through the media campaign associated with the referendum, sufficient publicity was generated to garner one million votes.
No longer willing to wait for the government to effect social change, Mexico's citizens have discovered the utility of forming citizens organizations. However, because many of these organizations were formed to protest specific societal problems, they often lack the professional outlook and the technical and organizational capacity to translate their objectives into results.
Taken as a sector, the emerging nonprofits are widely diverse in every sense. This diversity is a source of strength in that it reflects the kind of democratic, decentralized initiative that cannot be stopped for long by the state. It is also a weakness in the sense that many nonprofits do not understand how much their varied efforts could be served by cooperation. Worse, there is little sense of common vision and strategy for the sector as a whole, and individual groups have great difficulty in achieving change at the national level.
The nonprofit sector confronts a special problem in communicating its ideas and activities through the mainstream media. The government owns a fair share of television and radio, and it uses its considerable regulatory influence with respect to commercial media to ensure that events are interpreted in its favor. Consequently, most of the media has failed to provide coverage of the full range of today's democracy movement and the initiatives that it represents. Journalists also depend largely on the government for statistics and other indicators of social problems. The result is that the general public is only selectively informed and has become cynical about the media (as it did long ago with respect to government).
As long as social organizations do not have systematic, continuous access to communication media, their demands and proposals will not be duly addressed. However, few organizations realize the strategic importance of national and international communication media as mechanisms for influencing public opinion nor do they possess the requisite skills to implement a media strategy.
Under Emilio's leadership, the National Center for Social Communication has developed a multifaceted approach to forging an effective partnership between citizens groups and commercial media in the quest for democratization in Mexico. The Center first teaches citizens' organizations how to "make news" out of their daily activities. Next it shows them how to get this news to the media. Emphasis is placed on the appropriate use of images and messages, journalistic format and the use of new communication technology. Finally, it builds from this process to help them develop a true media strategy, a social communications plan.
The Center conducts a coordinated campaign with journalists to convince them to become more objective and truthful, by calling for the formation of an organization called "Journalists for Democracy." Also, by disseminating information through alternative media outlets such as the Internet, it creates pressure for the mainstream media to focus on these movements toavoid losing all credibility.
Finally, the center acts as a specialized news service to collect, organize and market certain critical information. One example is in reporting human rights violations; whenever any one of the hundreds of citizens' organizations learns of some atrocity, they channel it to the mainstreamand alternative media via the center. The leading example of its effectiveness was Center's role as the communications nerve center of the national citizen referendum on the government's policy toward the Chiapas rebellion. The media campaign it led was a major factor in the one million voter turn out in the referendum.
The Center also works to improve the whole nonprofit sector by using cutting-edge communications technology to open up new strategic links among organizations. This consists of making communication networks among various groups more dynamic so as to improve the flow of information. The inexpensive exchange of data and news through new communications technology provides a great advantage to the nonprofit sector. The strategy also includes the exchange of program plans to identify common areas of interest and to spread new ideas. Once the various groups are aware of one another's activities, it is possible for CENCOS to facilitate sharing of resources to allow the groups to operate more efficiently.
Emilio intends in the near future for the news service to generate income, as does the "media consulting service" now provided to citizens' organizations. This will make it possible to obtain all the basic elements necessary for the network's operation: constantly updated program plans, coordinated communication among working committees, electronic mail, a national network of correspondents and programs on national radio networks. It will also help facilitate ongoing relationships with international media to counteract information from government-manipulated Mexican sources.
Emilio is the twelfth of fourteen children and has always had a desire to work as part of a team. As a boy, he honed his leadership skills in the Scouts. He later joined the Christian-based communities and was involved with this grassroots movement from senior high school through university. Always attracted to social issues, he studied sociology. Later, to complement his studies related to communication, he immersed himself in computer technology.
Emilio's parents are the key factors in his upbringing and the direction his life has taken. His father, an engineer by profession, is dedicated to working in defense of human rights. His mother promotes social activities in favor of the neediest sectors. Together they are recognized throughoutMexico for their leadership in the struggle for social justice.
With this background, Emilio was well placed to bring a new professionalism and modernizing thrust to Mexico's often ideologically static social movements. When he became director of the National Center for Social Communication in 1990 it was a leading and venerable Catholic social justice agency. It was also increasingly irrelevant to the new wave of opportunities opening up in Mexico to promote democracy. Emilio initiated a plan of radical transformation. First, he re-directed the focus of the center from church-based solidarity action to "the thematic of nongovernmental organizations, networks and civil society." In so doing he actively promoted an inclusive ecumenism not previously associated with Catholic social action in Mexico. Second, recognizing that leftist militancy was as much a threat to the organization as resistance from those vested in the status quo ante, he broadened the Center's revenue support base to include individuals and small businesses. Third, he exchanged "knee-jerk, reactive" planning for "desktop" planning, involving careful consideration of alternative future scenarios. Lastly, he sought to create a work environment that would retain skilled staff by providing better wages and generally shifting from a "struggle culture" to a "professional service" culture. The staff shrank by one-half in this process to 12 full-time professionals and 8 practically full-time volunteers. With the results of the 1995 citizen referendum on government policy toward the Zapatistas, few of those who initialy opposed his policies would still criticize Emilio's new direction for the center.