By Deb Tomlinson and Joni Avram


This coming October, hundreds of professional communicators will gather at the IABC Western Conference in Banff. Deb Tomlinson (CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services) and Joni Avram (Founder of Cause & Effect Marketing) will present a case study on how to use impact assessment to enhance reputation and public engagement based on the success of the province-wide public awareness campaign called #IBelieveYou.

#IBelieveYou set out to change attitudes about a very challenging topic: sexual assault. We focused on changing the way the public—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and extended family—responds to someone who has been sexually assaulted.This is a big issue because sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. In Canada, upwards of 95% of sexual assaults go unreported. Which means survivors don’t get help—and offenders keep offending—an average of six times before they’re caught.

The common theme among survivors is that they don’t tell because they’re afraid they won’t be believed. Before the campaign started, we checked the baseline level of public understanding on this issue. We discovered that fewer than 1% of Albertans understood the importance of saying “I Believe You”. This data point helped us build the case for a strong coalition of organizations willing to increase that statistic.

Qualitative research through focus groups also helped us understand what the average person thought about this topic. People thought this was a major issue that didn’t get enough attention. They agreed that believing as a first step would help survivors overcome the guilt and shame associated with this crime. They wanted to do something about sexual assault, but didn’t know how. When we explained the power of believing, they said they felt empowered, confident, and capable of being a positive force in the life of a survivor. This was powerful information because it told us what inherently motivated people. Understanding motivation is key—because the desire to act is already there. We just had to tap into it.

Next, we modelled the behavior we wanted people to emulate. Social change theory suggests that if you want to change behavior, you show the behavior you want people to model. When you focus on a negative, you actually reinforce it. With many issues, it’s easy to hook people with anger and fear—or to use images that repulse and shock. We deliberately stayed away from that approach. Instead, we used positive emotion to show the audience how to be a healing force in the life of a survivor. These are the year one results:

In year two, we went a little deeper and measured public perception of social norms. People like to be in sync with their peers. If they think that others in their network will behave in a certain way, they are likely to mimic that behaviour even if they personally believe something else. Our theory was that the majority of Albertans would start by believing, but weren’t sure if their friends or larger public would do the same. Turns out, about 83% of Albertans personally would start by believing, but they thought a much fewer number (60%) would do the same. That insight helped us refine our message for year two when ‘I believe you’ expanded to ‘we believe you’.

Conducting and sharing this research helped us engage a broad group of people who wanted to help make communities healthier and safer for everyone.It also helped us build credibility with stakeholders because they could see that we had done our homework. We partnered with post-secondary institutions who used the campaign to drive policy changes and send a message of support to student survivors. Media outlets provided editorial support and $1.5 million in PSA advertising. Millions engaged on social networks with the campaign eventually achieving a social reach of over 100 million.

Every year we were able to measure the change in public understanding and behaviour. This incremental progress – verified by third party data – was one of the keys to success.Funding for the campaign went from $100,000 to $266,666.00 annually. Funding for the sexual assault centres in Alberta went from $8 million to $16 million.

Countless resources and energy are spent on public awareness campaigns with questionable impact. We owe it to our organizations and communities to do more. What we’ve learned through this campaign is that measurement is the key to success. Measurement enhances organizational credibility and influence which leads to public engagement. If you want to learn how to go beyond ‘raising awareness’ and instead create lasting social change, please join us on October 28, 2019.