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Communicating policies and messages to the public

December 8, 2019 #Insights
Communicating policies and messages to the public
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Cast From Clay Founder & Director, Tom Hashemi, was invited to sit on the “Media, Information Domains and the Post-Truth Era” panel at the CHACR annual conference at Sandhurst in 2019. His topic: “How to communicate policies and messages effectively to the public in today’s connected world”. He based his opening remarks on the following ideas.

Last night, I tried to put my 2-year-old son to bed at 7pm, his normal bedtime, and he screamed at me for 15 minutes.

My partner came into the room, told him that tomorrow he was going to see his Grandmum and needed to have a good night’s sleep so he was fresh and relaxed. He was asleep in minutes.

I’m not telling you this to highlight my failings as a father, but because it’s the perfect example of why humans – of any age – react very well when we reframe things for their benefit.

I founded my firm in the wake of the vote to leave the EU because I felt that policy experts on both sides of the debate had failed to have a meaningful voice during the campaign.

We work with intergovernmental organisations, think tanks, and universities, encouraging them to communicate with broader audiences.

We’re three years old as a business, and one of the big things we have learned is how frequently framing is ignored.

Bobby Duffy at the Policy Institute at King’s College London wrote a fascinating book called Perils of Perception last year based on research he had conducted in 35 countries around the world to understand people’s perceptions on a range of issues, from climate to crime to immigration. He then compared that perception data to the reality.

For example, in the UK we think a quarter of the country is immigrant. The reality is half that. Americans think a third of their country is immigrant, the reality is less than half of that.

This is interesting stuff, but we know that perceptions can be manipulated. What’s both interesting and useful is that during the research they challenged people who got the numbers wrong.

But even after people were shown that the immigration numbers were much lower than they had guessed, they insisted that their estimate was accurate.

The top two answers given for their insistence were that a) the government’s data is wrong because it doesn’t allow for illegal immigration, in other words they questioned the validity of the correction, or b) I just don’t believe you, I’m not going to engage in this: I’m right, you’re wrong.

This is straight out of the cognitive scientist’s playbook.

In the words of George Lakoff, “one of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors… when the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored”.

In other words, we don’t change people’s minds by giving them better facts or better information. We change their mind by changing the lens through which they view that information.

Let me give you two examples:

The Leave Campaign ran a highly effective campaign because they successfully reframed the debate. They inherited some advantages, namely 20 years of anti-EU message alignment, but they also had a clear understanding of who would vote for the campaign and the emotional reason why, and they were able to realise that vision.

That was both at the macro level, reframing the vote as one against the London elite, and at the micro level, reframing the relationship voters had with issues within the debate.

That’s one end of the scale; not all of us have a campaign infrastructure behind us. At the other end, an example from the OECD.

OECD analysts had written a report about corruption in Greece and wanted to get young Greeks to care. They developed relationships with a series of YouTube influencers, who had channels on things hairdressing, make up, and beauty styling – these were no policy geeks.

They helped the influencers understand the implications of corruption and left them to it. The YouTube influencers know their audience inside out, and were able to reframe the content, producing something that young Greeks would engage with. The videos received hundreds of thousands of views, for minimal financial investment.

If we want to effectively communicate policies and messages to the public, we need to have a detailed understanding of our audience’s emotional relationship to the topic at hand, and devise ways to reframe the issue in their minds, whether we do that ourselves or use others to do it.

So next time you’re thinking about how to communicate a policy or message effectively, think about my screaming two-year-old son refusing to go to sleep, and think about how you can reframe the topic at hand. And that’s whether you’re communicating with your colleagues, your partner, or the public.

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