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Is wishful thinking holding back your policy communications?

August 25, 2022 #Insights
Is wishful thinking holding back your policy communications?
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Assuming others think the same way as you do about a topic (or wishing you can make them) is the path to bad policy communications.

It’s hard to think the way other people think.

You weren’t born into the same family dynamic as them. You didn’t go to the same kind of school. Throughout your childhood you experienced different traumas, and you were encouraged and rewarded in different ways.

And before you even had those experiences, your genetics started you on an altogether different journey through life.

Anyone that works in communications has come across this challenge before.

I remember the first time I was conscious of it. I – a male, middle class, (then) child-less, university-educated Londoner – was working on a communications strategy to target working-class mums around the UK.

Their experiences couldn’t have been more different to mine. We hadn’t experienced life in the same way, and so we didn’t see the world in the same way.

When you start working with a new audience you may be aware of some such demographic difference. But you probably won’t be aware of the myriad of cultural and behavioural variations that result from these.

For example, you probably have an instinctive response as to whether or not something is fair. But that instinctive response may not be shared by others because we conceptualise fairness in different ways. So using your sense of fairness as the basis for a campaign message in the hope that it will chime with others isn’t the best game plan.

Key to designing effective communications is understanding both the broader context and how people think about an issue.

We need to recognise that targeted communications may not make us feel warm and fuzzy. It’s not meant to.

When it comes to turning that into communications, we need to recognise that what comes out of that process (the communication itself) may not make you feel warm and fuzzy. It’s not meant to: it isn’t targeting people that think and feel like you.

We’ve experienced this in several policy areas, often when a client is engaging us to reach across partisan lines.

Imagine a right-leaning campaigning organisation that must engage with a left wing government to bring about change. They’ll need help with framing an issue in order to build support.

Yet while the stated aim may be to drive engagement across partisan lines, the desire that often sits beneath it is something more like: “I want to create support for this policy outcome by demonstrating the legitimacy of my worldview.” In other words: I want to make them think like I do. Wishful thinking.

Sometimes it can take a while to tease this out. Sometimes the funder is cited (“They won’t approve that kind of message”), or perhaps it’s because peers in the area would struggle with this kind of narrative (“We won’t be able to leverage the community with this angle”). Getting everyone on board within the organisation can also be a challenge.

These concerns are legitimate. This stuff ain’t easy.

But if your target audience were likely to agree with your argument because of the validity of your worldview, we’d be discussing message refinement and amplification. We would not be discussing framing. 

For example, there is generally consistent agreement within the British and American political spheres that we need to support Ukraine in its defence against Russia (as always, there are exceptions to the rule). Here, there is no need to reframe the narrative. The imperative is to maintain the momentum of the narrative.

We need to use the frames that will work, not the ones we ourselves think are the most valid.

The better question to be asking at the outset of a campaign is: “How can I leverage my target audience’s worldview in order to get them to support this policy outcome?”.

In other words, how can I tap into what they believe to arrive at an outcome that will be mutually beneficial?

We will always struggle to see through other peoples’ eyes. We haven’t experienced the same things they have, so we have a different internal narrative to explain how the world works. That’s life.

If we want to convince our political “others” that something is worth their while, we need to couch our communications in frames that will align with their world view and arrive at some common ground.

We need to use the frames that will work, not the ones we ourselves think are the most valid. We need to focus on pragmatism at the expense of ideology.

If you need help implementing this in your organisation, we can help. Get in touch.

Image credit: Andrew Shiau on Unsplash.

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