Messaging the narrative of “change”

October 3, 2016

Rising income inequality. A feeling of economic displacement and insecurity expressed by people across the political spectrum. Race relations at center stage in cities across the country. Rapid demographic, societal and cultural shifts, including the legalization of gay marriage in state after state within a few short years. The nonprofits and foundations that Resource Media works with have one big thing in common:  they are all working to advance narratives that effectively empower American citizens in a time of rapid societal, cultural and economic change.

Social movements rise and fall on two factors: the public’s values and its appetite for change. Political science research from this past spring points to a surprising trend: the recent, rapid changes in American society, culture and economics has unleashed a segment of America that fears change and craves order. Other researchers point out that this fear of change and desire for order is bipartisan, seen on both ends of the political spectrum.

So how can values-based messaging and approaches engage, rather than frighten people around change? At Resource Media one of our guiding communications philosophies is to “meet people where they are.”

When we say “meet people where they are” with your messaging, we mean you need to understand two things and message appropriately around them both. The first is to understand your audience’s values, or the truths that they hold dearest. The second is to understand their appetite for change.

For example, Resource Media staffers have studied the state-by-state gay marriage legalization efforts. The early campaigns provoked hatred, vitriol, anger and fear among some voters about cultural shifts in American society today. Why suddenly did the gay marriage movement get support from conservatives in many states? Because they changed their messaging from changing the definition of marriage to reframing it as we should treat everybody the same (yes, keep things the same). The values were fairness and freedom. Freedom to marry, freedom to be like everyone else. Not to change things.

What if your work is not focused on cultural issues, but on other community issues like land use? Let’s say you work in a community where a large bloc of the population likes things just the way they are, and isn’t ready to think or plan for the future. Their reaction to the rapid growth in a community might be to lament about how it used to be, but they can’t translate that into developing forward-looking growth and development policies that plan for a different future – their appetite for change just isn’t there. Instead of talking about this policy for smart growth and livable communities, you can talk about protecting the community’s heritage and keeping things the way they’ve always been. Working together, we can keep it that way.

The same is true for land use on a large scale, like wilderness-scale. In 2015, Congress passed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, protecting wild lands and habitat in Montana and adding acreage to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. That bill was the first addition of protected wilderness area in Montana in 30 years. In previous decades, Montana wilderness advocates talked about “creating new” wilderness areas. But really those wilderness areas are legal tools for keeping the landscape as it is – and how it has been for centuries. When advocating the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, however, conservationists focused the plan as a way to “keep it like it is.” It worked, the people understood and backed the plan and the elected officials in Washington D.C. passed the bill.

You can make a difference when you carefully craft messages and promote solutions-oriented story narratives. While changing times may be inevitable, provoking knee-jerk reactions from communities who fear change doesn’t have to be!

Liz Banse