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Communicate for change

  • British communications specialist Tony Hollingsworth of the 'Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute' fame uses culture to offer specific solutions
  • Hollingsworth’s latest project, 'The Listen Campaign', seeks to promote awareness about underprivileged and vulnerable children across the world

Hollingsworth’s latest project will tell stories from the point of view of children.
Hollingsworth’s latest project will tell stories from the point of view of children.

Neslon Mandela wasn’t always the anti-apartheid icon he is today. When the government of South Africa arrested him in the 1960s, many in the Western media referred to him as a “black terrorist leader". By the 1980s, there were social movements across the world to secure his release. To a large extent, however, the image problem persisted.

It bothered Tony Hollingsworth, a British producer and communications specialist who had organized an anti-racism campaign in London from 1984-86. “I was trying to think, how do you construct a media campaign that would get rid of the word ‘terrorist’ and make him a ‘black leader’," he told Lounge during his recent visit to Mumbai.

In Mandela’s case, he realized, most of the social campaigning was negative and restricted to some parts of the world. Hollingsworth wanted to make the discourse about Mandela more widespread and accessible, the kind that would comfortably enter living room conversations without sounding too heavy or alienating. Like music. Or a birthday celebration.

In 1988, Hollingsworth organized the “Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute". On the face of it, it was a music concert featuring some of the most popular artists of the time: Sting, Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte . But it cloaked politics in music. The concert was broadcast in 67 countries. Even media groups that had earlier tagged Mandela as a “terrorist", like Fox News or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), signed up for broadcast rights.

“Six-hundred million people watching it is a political activity by itself," says Hollingsworth. “As for the objective of the whole project—to get rid of the word terrorist—it soon disappeared from (news broadcasters like) the BBC in the UK, Fox in America, ZDF in Germany, France 2 in France."

Now, for the last few years Hollingsworth has been laying the groundwork for “The Listen Campaign", his latest project to promote awareness about underprivileged and vulnerable children across the world. Like several music-oriented campaigns he has organized since Mandela’s, this involves collaborating with artists and broadcasters. The difference is the scale: He intends this to go on for a year.

Around 700 million children live in “multi-dimensional poverty", according to World Bank figures. Thousands of NGOs have been working to address their issues. But communication in the sector, says Hollingsworth, is fractured.

“I once spoke to charities in Jordan and Lebanon and they told me they have a 12-year plan for (conflict-affected) children. It starts with transitioning from malnutrition or trauma, followed by long-term treatment, education, and, finally, employment. We have seen what unemployment does: gangs, violence, all kinds, even to those without the trauma. But when we see advertisements, it’s often like: ‘Please text this number to buy a Syrian refugee child a blanket tonight.’ It doesn’t tell me about the problem or the solution. The organizations know about it but we don’t see the communication."

Starting March 2020, he says, his latest campaign will collaborate with actors from four countries, including India, and create short films and other projects that tell stories from the point of view of children. In each film, the protagonist—a child—will talk to an actor about his/her difficulties and how he/she overcame them. The campaign will also include collaborations with music directors, novelists and visual artists, concluding with a music concert in Los Angeles. When it comes to funding, Hollignsworth says, “The campaign is financed by merchandising, TV licensing fees—the same sort of commercial income that would fund IPL (Indian Premier League)."

The idea, he says, isn’t to raise money—it’s to promote awareness and prompt people to get involved. “We want to look at the problem but celebrate solutions," he says. “If you can show people solutions they know they have in their backyard, they will push for it."

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