There are five key ingredients to creating effective communications for social change.
1. Frame messages in shared values
Facts, alone, rarely change minds. We all tend to accept facts that support what we already believe and reject those that don’t.
To avoid this happening, we need to frame facts and messages in terms of shared values. Our values represent our deeply held beliefs, and we all use them subconsciously all the time to make sense of the world.
We need to be aware of which values our messages are triggering, and frame our communications to engage those values that will help achieve our progressive aims.
The Common Cause handbook explains about values in detail.
2. Understand who to target
Research shows that across a range of social issues approximately 20% of people will agree with progressive messaging, 40% will be conflicted, 20% will be disinterested, and 20% will oppose it and never change their minds.
To build support for your campaign or issue beyond the people who already agree with you, the best place to focus your efforts is on the conflicted audience, as they are open to hearing both positive and negative messages and are therefore open to persuasion. Understanding who your conflicted audience are and what matters to them will help you work out how to connect with them.
3. Tell a different story
As a sector we tend to know how talk to the 20% of people who already agree with us, and try to use the same approaches with everyone else. This does not work.
It’s also very tempting to refute the messages we disagree with and that undermine our cause. For example, trying to prove that poverty isn’t caused by an individual’s poor life choices. We love to fact-check and myth-bust in campaigns.
But, when we do this, we call to mind the very things – the negative frame – we’re trying to invalidate. Evidence shows that this repetition of the myth reinforces it, leaving people remembering the falsehoods as correct.
Instead, we need to tell a new and different story about the issue – an alternative narrative – and we need to tell it again and again.
We need to understand what will make our issue matter to our 40% target audience. Which of their values do we need to trigger to connect them to our messages. And we need to use stories and emotional resonance to make our messages cut through and stick.
4. Think carefully about metaphors
Metaphors are a useful and powerful framing tool as they help us to convey complex information quickly, drawing on common reference points with an audience.
But they can be problematic from a framing perspective. For example, talking about migrants being ‘lured’ to the UK with the promise of jobs, and then ‘hunted’ down by the police on the one hand evokes sympathy, but on the other, reinforces the dehumanising – and animalistic – narrative around migrants. So we need to think about the metaphors we use carefully.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation are successfully using the metaphor of people ‘being locked into poverty’ by a combination of low pay, insecure work, high living costs and insufficient social security. You can see their approach in practice in this press release.
5. Find hope and agency
We need to avoid the language of crisis and show that change is possible.
Too often, we start and end with the problem, which breeds fatalism. Instead, as in traditional storytelling, we need to offer clear villains and heroes: we need to show who or what is behind the problem and offer a positive vision, with clear and concrete solutions to show that change is possible.