Breaking through noise requires research, planning

by Katherine Kerr, APR

Gurwin Singh Ahuja (photo by George Conklin)

While the campaign to portray American Sikhs in a positive light was almost immediately successful, the campaign itself was years in the making, said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, co-founder and executive director of the National Sikh Campaign and We are Sikhs.

In his workshop, “Breaking Through the Noise: Effectively Communicating Your Values in a Polarized Political Environment,” Ahuja shared that the Sikh community had been frustrated since 9/11 about the lack of understanding about Sikhs and misidentifying members as terrorists.

The breaking point happened in 2012 when a white supremacist shot and killed six people in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh temple. Ahuja, who was working on the Obama presidential campaign, could see in the news coverage that journalists were struggling to report accurate information about Sikhs. Ahuja said he was disappointed by the Sikh community’s response in articulating Sikh values of standing for gender and racial equity and religious tolerance.

He believed that if people were informed about Sikh’s values and believes, their erroneous beliefs about Sikhs as unAmerican and terrorist could be flipped.

Using research-based information and pre- and post-message testing, a multi-channel campaign was rolled out in selected markets in 2015 to educate the American public about Sikhs. In addition to traditional and social media channels, the effort included community events, like Turban Day in New York City’s Times Square. In a smaller community, the Sikh’s “saved” the Fourth of July Fireworks Show, demonstrating Sikhs’ allegiance to all things American.

Video spots showing American Sikhs as teachers, PTA moms, pilots and in a variety of settings helped position Sikhs as “regular Americans.” The success, Ahuja, said, was tying American Sikhs into the larger American story of a people committed to equality, respect and justice. Instead of stories of Sikhs as victims, people who had things done to them, Sikhs instead are positioned as people who are doing things for communities.

“My faith identity is secondary to my human identity,” he said.

While digital media will be the force for the future, Ahuja cautioned against giving up on traditional media channels and couple those channels with grassroots efforts.

For information and to see elements of the campaign, visit We Are Sikhs and the National Sikh Campaign.

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