In 1979, Margaret Thatcher swept to power in an election that gave her British Conservative Party the first of four consecutive majority governments, relegating rival Labour to 18 years in opposition.
Powering her campaign was a three-word slogan that one cabinet minister would credit for the landmark victory. Developed by the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, it appeared on a poster in bold, upper-case type above a long, snaking queue outside an unemployment office: "Labour isn't working."
Few key messages are as momentous, or fuelled by as much money and influence, as that slogan. (Thatcher's aggressive foreign policy reinforced Britain's special relationship with the United States and her legislation, trumpeting "law and order" and smaller government, tore down the edifice of the post-war welfare state -- inspiring right-leaning governments to this day, including ours.) But well-crafted messages of many kinds have the power to cut through the noise and mobilize target audiences -- as the most effective agents of social change (progressive and regressive) know.
So what are key messages? And how can non-profit agencies, without Saatchi-&-Saatchi-sized budgets, craft them for best effect?
Key messages are the main points you want to convey in your news release, op-ed article, campaign, speech, social media blast, or whatever. Ideally they fit into and reinforce strong frames of reference (see my last Tools for Change column) that your audiences recognize. They are best when succinct, in plain language and few in number -- no more than three. And they should be backed by several secondary messages, providing evidence and points of argument, within a narrative that your audiences will want to hear.
Conservatives as alternatives
"Labour isn't working" did all these things, and more. Thatcher's Conservatives had branded themselves as a fresh alternative that would put Britons back to work and restore some of the nation's lost imperial might. According to their narrative, Britannia's greatness had been sapped by successive Labour and weak-kneed Conservative governments, which had shackled the free-market, overtaxed its citizenry, and introduced a "nanny-state" that had enfeebled Britain's once world-beating workforce and industries.
Thatcher thus framed the ballot question as being about unemployment and labour unrest, referring constantly to the recent Winter of Discontent (another conceptual frame, courtesy of Shakespeare) when thousands of workers across different sectors struck for higher wages. And the key message on that famous poster reinforced this frame, while cleverly targeting working-class families, whom the Tories hoped to coax into the fold. A secondary message found in smaller print at the bottom of the poster read "Britain's better off with the Conservatives."
Many British workers were worried about the then high-levels of unemployment, between five and six per cent (it would double within three years) and they would have immediately recognized the plain, artful language of the campaign slogan. Like a punchy banner headline in the tabloids, it negated the assertion labour equals work and appealed to the almost universal dislike of unemployment -- or, worse, sloth, the stereotype of the lazy council-worker, etc. As well, it asserted the need for an overhaul of a broken economic system that had been championed in post-war Britain, and managed most recently by Labour governments. All this in just three words. Not bad, if you ignore its devastating impact.
So how do you go about developing strong messages? As with framing, begin by deciding whom you wish to reach, your key audiences, and what their level of understanding and concerns about your issues may be. Be specific -- the general public is not a key audience, nor are the news media, except in exceptional cases.
A campaign for sustainable seafood launched several years ago by the David Suzuki Foundation and other groups targeted specific groups of younger, educated Canadians with a high-degree of awareness about the food they consume. This included folks who shop at farmers markets, foodies who dine out often and a sub-group of health-conscious mothers, playfully referred to as yoga-pant moms. You know: those industrious, urban, Lycra-clad, sushi lovers, with vast social networks, power over most household purchases and a yearning to protect the environment.
The SeaChoice campaign was informed by an assessment of the knowledge and readiness of its audiences to act on information provided, and of the messengers these moms, and others, might pull over to listen to in their Smart Cars or Pathfinders. The main messages then were not to "demonstrate against ruinous commercial fishing" or "boycott Safeway" for its sale of salmon farmed in unhealthy open-net pens; but rather "Take the Sustainable Seafood Pledge", "Host an ocean-friendly supper" and "Ask three friends to take the pledge, tripling your impact".
Aimed at mothers
These were crafted to appeal to, among others, the values of the health-conscious moms: intrinsic, or inherently rewarding, values (sharing good food with family and friends, supporting sustainable fisheries, etc.) as well as extrinsic values, centred on external approval or rewards (celebrity, Lululemon, shopping, etc.). As researchers with the British non-profit initiative Common Cause have noted, different frames and messaging strengthen the values they appeal to (or activate), and weaken or suppress opposite values.
For example, the British war effort in the 1940s strengthened the value of sacrifice for the common good and suppressed individualistic values. This created fertile ground in Britain in post-war years for the introduction of the National Health Service and major investments in public housing and education -- until the election of Thatcher. One needs to be mindful of this dynamic system of values and avoid strengthening those that may undermine one's cause in the long term.
"When addressing 'bigger-than-self' issues such as climate change, there's a temptation to think about short-term gains or wins," says Kerri Klein, program manager and facilitator, with B.C. Healthy Communities and author of a master's dissertation on the psychological ways that people understand climate change.
"So you might need to sacrifice short-term success to win the long-term game." Klein points to BC Hydro's energy conservation messaging, which focus heavily on cost-savings, with only muted appeals to intrinsic values, such as protecting nature or social justice (consuming less electricity means fewer dams being built, fewer people being pushed off their land, lower greenhouse gas emissions.)
To sum up, when thinking about how to reach audiences, it's not what you want to tell them, but what they are able to hear.
Try also to embed your messages in a compelling narrative. "Labour isn't working" fit neatly into a narrative about the welfare state, trade unions and the demise of the British Empire that critics, and elements of the mass media, had been broadcasting for years. In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to how such story-telling can be used to communicate effectively in almost any realm of endeavour: politics, law, military, business, the arts -- even math.
Narratives in support of social change are most powerful when they encourage readers to connect a poignant human story with the larger economic and political factors underlying a problem and how individuals can address these root causes. Too often media focus narrowly on the poignant human story, and fail to make such thematic connections.
One of the most influential advocates of story-telling, or public narrative, is Marshall Ganz, a professor of public policy at Harvard, who was active in the civil rights movement and an architect of President Barack Obama's 2008 "Yes we can" campaign. Ganz encourages activists to think not so much of disseminating a narrative, in a one-to-many fashion, but rather to engage in an iterative, intimate form of narrative building that informs itself and evolves as one tests different ways of telling a story and how audiences -- and you -- respond.
He encourages us to develop our own personal narratives, touching on three stories: the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now. Obama's campaigns have been powered by thousands of activists who have personalized the campaign issues in this powerful way. I have done a training workshop with Ganzians and see value in his technique, though it takes practice.
At first, I felt awkward, using this approach. But, as I discovered in subsequent presentations, it forced me to understand, and articulate for others, my own core values and motivations, as well as the problem we need to address together, and the power of acting now. This approach then embeds messages in multilayered stories that can slice through the noise of advertising and bloodless ideology.