The social sector has long focused on the public narrative, but now feels different. Leaders of advocacy groups, foundations, and nonprofits are awakening to the critical need to identify the dominant public narrative around their issue, and assert a more compelling alternative that helps people think differently about solutions. If you are a leader in this field and are trying to find your way to shifting the public narrative around your cause, there is one place you must start: Identify the current dominant narrative.
Ask yourself these questions:
There is research that can help you here. The FrameWorks Institute, Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and others can be great resources for finding material relevant to your cause. But in the absence of existing material, you can engineer your own exercise, informally, to try to get to the bottom of how the public thinks and talks about the issues that you care about. Only then can you go about shifting it.
As I work with clients to develop new organizational message platforms, the idea of messages resonating with audiences seems so obvious, it need not be mentioned. “Meet people where they are,” you’ve undoubtedly heard.
This overused concept of “resonance” is a crutch for many in the communications field – simplifying the complexity of our work to a process of simply finding out what language, concepts and themes appeal to people, and then repeating those things back to them. There are implications to this approach that are unfortunate at best, and toxic at worst.
A public opinion poll on early childhood development asked respondents to identify the most serious problems that children face. Eighty-five percent responded that “parents not paying enough attention to what’s going on in their children’s lives” was the most serious. In the same poll, nearly 80% of respondents identified parents as most responsible for making sure that families have childcare, well above employers and government.
Given this example, it can be assumed that if we were to design messaging about early childhood development to “meet the public where they are,” we would adopt messaging that reflected this individualist frame, characterizing the behavior and choices of parents as the input that shapes the development of their children. Further, if we were to develop messaging to “resonate” with the public on this issue, we would largely ignore the more systemic contributing factors that research and brain science now tell us are so important to the healthy development of young children.
Even if we were to develop messaging to appeal to this widely held public sentiment for the purposes of shifting their thinking to a more productive frame, simply having reinforced the individualist mode of thinking prevents our audiences from making that shift. We have essentially dug ourselves a deeper hole, making our problem worse before we even attend to the task of fixing it.
This is an example that can be applied to virtually any issue around which we are developing messaging. If the public regards a problem as the result of individual behavior, they are far less likely to support systemic changes to fix the problem. Therefore, if we design our messaging in such a way that reinforces this unproductive pattern of thinking, even if we do so in the name of advocating for systemic solutions, our audience is more likely to maintain the unproductive frame.
Our goal as strategic messengers is not to achieve resonance. Our goal is not merely to identify messaging that appeals to our audiences. Instead, our goal is to develop messaging that makes it more likely our audiences will behave in the way we want them to.
Here’s an example. For years, advocates for evidence-based addiction policies spent valuable resources characterizing such policies through the value of empathy. Treatment and prevention represent the right thing to do for our neighbors who are struggling with addiction. They were meeting their audience where they were: stuck in an unproductive pattern of thinking that reinforced the notion that addiction is best characterized by a set of individual human behaviors, and therefore, best treated with a greater level of care and understanding for those individuals.
But researchers at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC that maps the public’s thinking around important social issues and identifies messaging strategies to navigate some of the most common roadblocks, discovered that messaging using empathy actually depressed support for systemic solutions to the problem. You read that right. Advocates for evidence-based addiction policies were actually deploying messaging that made it less likely people would support that very idea. Describing addiction using a more systemic frame, such as interdependence or ingenuity, had the opposite effect. When audiences were prompted to consider the problem of addiction as a condition that impacts all of us, or as a challenging problem requiring forward-thinking solutions, they were more likely to support systemic policy solutions. Why? Because the messaging allowed their brains to consider the problem from a different angle.
Had researchers at the FrameWorks Institute tested such messages for resonance, they would have yielded very different results. But when messaging is developed through the lens of the end goal – in this case, support for certain policies – the result is not only smarter, more effective messaging, but an end to messaging frames that have the opposite effect.
Traditional message testing simply measures the wrong metrics, and too many professional communicators respond to those findings inappropriately. The next time you develop messaging, think about your ultimate goal and forget about resonance. If all your messaging is designed to do is meet people where they are, then all your messaging will do is help them stay there.
Let’s start with the assumption that no one thinks mass shootings are a good thing. Starting the conversation from a place of good intention is helpful when grappling with issues weighed down by historical context and ideological divide. The public debate around guns in America rarely starts from that place, and never ends there. The place where the gun debate does ultimately end is a fascinating case study in framing.
On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, killing 12 and wounding 70 others. Six months later on December 14, Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 kids at Sandy Hook. June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanual AME Church in Charleston. Almost exactly a year later, just two weeks ago, Omar Mateen killed 49 at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, making it the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Like with other mass shootings, our leaders offered thoughts and prayers and our public offered sadness and reflection. Those who champion gun reforms in America seek to transform the outrage into action. But why doesn’t it stick? The answer lies, at least in part, in message framing by the other side.
After Aurora, while gun reform activists publicly called for a ban on the kinds of guns and high-capacity magazines used in the shooting, the public dialogue turned quickly to mental health. The shooter even presented himself to a jury as mentally incompetent, which the court rejected, but it didn’t stop the public debate from focusing on mental health services.
Six months later as the nation struggled to comprehend what happened in Newtown, and level-headed people everywhere thought for sure, this time, we will do something about guns, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre declared that the threat came from “people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them,” doubling down on its message that we should do everything we can to restrict gun access to the mentally impaired, even as they declined to support legislation in Colorado that sought to do just that.
Then came Charleston, where members of a Bible study group welcomed a stranger into their house of worship, who would open fire on them minutes later. Roof was found to be another emotionally unstable individual, as pictures surfaced on the internet portraying him as a violent white separatist. Almost immediately, Republican leaders, including South Carolina’s governor, called for the removal of the Confederate Flag from State House grounds, shifting the public debate away from gun access and toward racism.
Now, as we grapple with yet another mass shooting involving a gun that should not be legal and an individual that should not legally have it, our public debate is being hijacked by the TSA’s No Fly list, a subject that is barely on the periphery in terms of its contributions to gun violence in this country, but that now dominates the debate on the floors of Congress.
Gun rights groups are masterful at reframing the debate around guns to focus on a relatively small contributor to a much bigger problem. It is classic reclassification of the problem. By doing so, they define the terms of the debate. This is no longer about combat grade assault weapons. It’s about terrorism, or the mentally ill, or racists. Those are smaller arguments to have, and can be had on grounds that have nothing to do with guns. Further, if the problem is successfully redefined and gun control advocates fight on this newly drawn playing field, even if the NRA loses, they would have lost a much smaller battle.
As Democrats introduce legislation, and filibuster and stage sit-ins on the House floor to have the legislation considered, they are ceding the debate before they even file the bill. So when the next mass shooting occurs and we shake our heads and think “What is it going to take?”, consider the possibility that the answer might be to stop accepting the framing from the other side.
That is what it will take.
A city ordinance protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was approved by the Houston City Council – a city which, for three consecutive terms – elected a lesbian mayor without much fanfare. When opponents got through with its narrative hijacking, the ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly. Their message? “No men in women’s bathrooms.” The story that opponents adopted was that expanding protections for transgender people would endanger women and children, and that compelling story won the day over an ordinance designed to limit discrimination.
That was last year. Since then, at least 30 bills have been introduced in 16 states mandating that use of bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities match the gender on one’s birth certificate.
This is not a blog about whether such bills are discriminatory, nor is it an opinion piece about such efforts. Instead, I attempt here to examine the fascinating storytelling lesson to be learned.
The argument is simple: Restricting women’s bathroom access to those who were born a woman would keep men from dressing up as women and entering a restroom to sneak a peek, or worse, to assault women and children. The image that this narrative evokes is compelling. We share a strong expectation of privacy, security, and anonymity when we enter a public bathroom. There is a vulnerability that finds its way into that stall with us. Violating that sacred space with an unwelcome set of eyes is as revolting as it is unimaginable. And yet, we imagine it.
Fear is a destabilizing emotion. It is not subject to rationale or reason. It has the luxury of ignoring fact or logically-weighed risk. Fear does not need to acknowledge that no incidents of the aforementioned “trans defense” have occurred by a peeping tom, nor is there any evidence of an increased public safety risk in the hundreds of local jurisdictions that have successfully instituted ordinances designed to allow transgendered people to enter the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
The story that bathroom-bill-proponents tell is one rooted in fear. No one would dispute that. So why does it work?
There are four basic elements to a good narrative, and this one hits all four.
Recently, Martin Shkreli became the latest in a long line of American corporate villains, as news broke across the internet that he had purchased the patent of a drug known to fight infections that are common among AIDS patients, and then jacked the price more than 5,000%. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and similar social networks exploded with rage, and digital advocates secretly reveled in finally finding the face and voice of all that is wrong with American healthcare.
High drug prices are nothing new to America, and complaining about them is nothing new for Americans. Behind our general, albeit begrudging acceptance of outrageous drug prices is an understanding that as Americans, we are an innovative people. We invent, and therefore we invest. We may not like admitting it to ourselves, but on a purely logical level, we accept that it’s part of the capitalist equation.
But those rules don’t apply to Martin Shkreli. He bought a drug that already existed, had already been marketed, had existing patients that depended on it, and then raised the price so astronomically as to trigger the reaction of disbelief even among those in the investing world.
What the outraged masses almost entirely ignored, though, is that Martin Shkreli isn’t the first American CEO to pull this trick. He is not even be the richest, or the most successful. According to Forbes: “Questcor Pharmaceuticals raised the price of its drug, Acthar Gel, from $40 to $28,000 per vial. The reward? It was one of the best-performing stocks in America until Mallinckrodt bought it for $5.6 billion last year. Valeant Pharmaceuticals has done big price increases on numerous drugs. The stock’s up 740% over five years and its founder, Michael Pearson, is a billionaire. Only Shkreli has drawn the American public’s rage.”
Why is it that as Americans, we pick and choose our villains, running some out of town while giving others a pass? Why did the nation erupt at the idea of Tiger Woods as a serial philanderer, but just roll their eyes at the antics of, say, Charlie Sheen? Why were Americans ready to burn Bernie Madoff at the stake, but have never even heard of Cobus Kellermann, the South African fund manager whose Ponzi scheme may dwarf that of the New York convict? And why was Anthony Weiner run out of Congress and laughed at as a Mayoral candidate, when political sex scandals are practically a cottage industry in our country?
It may have something to do with the stories we attach to these supervillains. Tiger Woods is the young, handsome athlete whose sport reminds us of our own best selves: refined, respectable and sophisticated. There is a degree of honesty with an image like that, not one of a compulsive sex addict.
Bernie Madoff became THE American supervillain because his story came at a time when Americans were seeing their homes in foreclosure, their pensions plummet, and their paychecks freeze thanks to the inexplicable level of greed and excess exhibited on Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street has always been this way, but we were given a reason to be supremely pissed off at the idea of traders making off with our retirement, and along came Bernie Madoff, whose investment talents were as imaginary as the returns he claimed.
And while Anthony Weiner certainly isn’t the first politician to write the story of his own demise, he was the first to have it captured on Twitter and then amplified by an out-to-get-you internet publisher named Andrew Breitbart, whose readers came to expect the kind of sensationalistic stories the Weiner saga (no pun intended) handed to him on a silver, uh, iPhone.
To hear the collective story emerging from Facebook, it is as if Martin Shkreli lives the life of a modern-day Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street). The pictures blasted out in angry tweets show exactly the kind of 30-something, know-it-all, trust fund baby we picture walking the halls of Choate Academy, taking daddy’s helicopter home on weekends, and catching up in his inheritance at the family Hamptons compound. His story, as it was portrayed, has all the makings of a classic tale of internet scumbaggery.
The bad news for Martin Shkreli is, that’s all it takes. A compelling story is the critical element to a reputation crisis. Once you have lost control of your story – ie: your reputation or your brand – it is very difficult and very expensive to get it back. Martin Shkreli feels as if he has done nothing wrong, or at least nothing out of the ordinary among his investment peers. He wasn’t even the first to do it, and probably not the most profitable. But in the age of social media, and immediate consumption of news that relies almost entirely on visual storytelling, he quickly became the internet’s next victim.
Should we feel bad for Martin Shkreli? That is not the lesson I am seeking to convey here. The lesson for organizations who may fall victim to a reputation attack is simple: It is far less important to defend yourself to your friends using facts than it is to recognize the story being portrayed to people who have never heard of you.
Storytelling can be a weapon as much as it is an art form, and those that have succeeded at reclaiming their reputations after a crisis are the ones that can rewrite their story by first acknowledging the power of the one written for them.
Ask your nearest five-year-old to explain the complex issues of the day, and the answers may surprise you. Lack of worldly context notwithstanding, the language and thought process used by young children can teach us a lot about how we explain social problems and the solutions we advocate for. The next time you find yourself struggling to connect with your audience, try putting yourself in the position of explaining the subject matter to a five-year-old. Here are five ways it will help:
The next time you find yourself struggling to connect with an audience, or you are unsure about why your communications aren’t resonating with the intended audience, think about consulting your nearest five-year-old. For these reasons and more, it may be the most valuable conversation you will have about your issue.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.