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Using Values and Framing to Create Messages that Motivate

December 16, 2019 | Ingrid Daffner Krasnow and Shaddai Martinez Cuestas, Berkeley Media Studies Group | Originally published by PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group

Overcoming common communication challenges: A 3-part series for advocates

You know that moment when you see or hear an absurd argument, and you want to respond but are at a loss for what to say? Or you pepper your audience with so much data that your passion for the issue gets lost behind the facts? Most public health and social justice advocates have experienced these and other common communication challenges at some point—the good news is that there are clear steps advocates can take to avoid such pitfalls.

We recently worked with grantees of The California Wellness Foundation to help them sidestep such problems and strengthen their communication tactics. Through strategic consultation sessions, these dedicated community advocates crafted effective messages to advance their overall social change goals, including complex challenges like improving local job prospects for formerly incarcerated individuals. Several lessons emerged from the consultation process that could be applied to any issue, from climate change to violence prevention to reproductive justice.

This blog, the second in a three-part series, captures those lessons to help advocates make sure that what they say reflects their underlying values and resonates with their target audience.


Message development basics

Image: White board with list of brainstorming messaging values

Developing a message strategy requires crafting succinct, powerful messages that 1) clearly articulate the problem needing attention; 2) provide a specific, actionable solution including who should be held accountable for implementing the solution; and 3) make a compelling case for why the action matters for the whole community.

The steps to developing a message are similar to the steps involved in outlining the problem and solution of your overall social change strategy, which, as we describe in the first part of this series, forms the foundation for your communication strategy. In fact, the problem and solution in your overall strategy can become the problem and solution statements of your message. The more descriptive, the better: Your message can (and should) paint a picture of what the problem looks like (e.g. “There are more junk food vending machines than water fountains in our school,” or “When our playgrounds are locked after school, children can’t get the activity they need to be healthy even when they’re eager to play.”)

We also encourage advocates to frame their issues in a way that moves away from individual responsibility toward institutional or social responsibility. You can do this in part by articulating your values and evoking the reasons that motivate or inspire you and your target to take action, even when it’s hard, expensive, or unpopular. Often, advocates present data, thinking that knowing the extent of the problem will activate people. However, the truth is that while data are important, people mobilize and act based on the core values they hold deeply. When your message answers the question, “Why does this matter?”, your values come through for your target audience. Common values include fairness, health, children, unity, equity, education, and many more. Take some time to name your values, and infuse them into your messages.


The Case of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency

The team from Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) came to BMSG for help determining how best to engage employers in their program to secure sustainable employment for formerly incarcerated employees. We worked with the BOSS team to determine some messaging that would help strengthen their partnerships with prospective employers. As always, we started by asking about the specific problem they wanted to solve:

Problem: Many formerly incarcerated individuals can’t find work, leading to deep poverty and perpetual homelessness.

Good start; however, the concept that someone “can’t find work” is largely characterized by an individual frame, reinforcing the view that it is all the individual’s fault for being homeless or poor. We asked the BOSS team to share more about the roots of this problem. Here’s what they said:

Problem: Many prospective employers worry that hiring formerly incarcerated individuals is a liability to their business, making it difficult for re-entering citizens to find a job.

We’re getting there, but this frame still needs broadening to include the systems and structures that are preventing employment. (It also includes an “elephant trigger,” which will diminish the power of your frame). We asked BOSS to dig deeper into why employers weren’t more open to hiring all qualified candidates, regardless of their record.

We also suggested to the BOSS team that they can frame the problem in terms of the solution they want to see. In this case, BOSS has a dedicated program that partners with prospective employers to educate them around hiring re-entering citizens and provide support to both employer and employee over the long-term to ensure a beneficial relationship for all involved. This allowed the BOSS team to better envision their frame and state the problem, solution, and why it matters (including their values):

Problem: Many prospective employers aren’t educated about the many untapped skills among formerly incarcerated individuals or the benefits to their companies and society at large and, therefore, are hesitant to consider hiring re-entering citizens. This makes it difficult for returning citizens to secure employment even though they are eager to work and have the skills employers need.

Solution: BOSS develops partnerships with prospective employers to educate them about how hiring returning citizens benefits their company, the employees themselves, and the community. BOSS is committed to addressing the unfair stigmas associated with formerly incarcerated individuals and providing support to the employer and employee in the hiring process and during the employment period. A partnership with BOSS gives both employers and employees the support and structure they need for a successful match.

Why it matters: All qualified and motivated individuals deserve a fair chance at gainful employment. We have a chance to break the cycle of poverty that leads to homelessness and poor health outcomes across generations and bring stability and a brighter future to our returning citizens.

Now we’re close. Remember, most messages need lots of revisions over time. It’s all a learning process, so give yourself the time and space to learn what works and what doesn’t, and just keep at it.

See the full series on overcoming communications challenges

Want to learn more? See the other blogs in this series from PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group:


Ingrid Daffner Krasnow and Shaddai Martinez Cuestas are both Strategic Communications Specialists at PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group.