Any time you’re told someone wants to “raise awareness” of a policy issue or topic, your immediate response should be, “OK, and then what?” Just as if you were trying to sell pickup trucks, hamburgers or prescription medication, awareness of a policy topic is only the first step in a marketing funnel-based strategic process that gets your target audience to the point where you can close the deal.
I have a new article up at Think Freely Media on the Jones Act, and how the lesson of Puerto Rico should make us rethink what we’re doing when we try to “protect” an industry from competition.
You may have the perfect policy to meet your population’s needs. But do you know how to give them what they want?
Principled public policy advocates tend to work proactively where they see the biggest need for reform. This differentiates them from politicians, who largely react to public opinion. Taking on the big issues is a good way to go about staying true to your mission, but it can backfire if your advocacy only focuses the need for the reforms rather than connecting it to what people truly want. This doesn’t require a change in policy, but it does call for thoughtful marketing and communications strategy and execution.
For instance, as a fiscal policy expert, you may know that your state needs to shut down its wasteful “economic development” corporate welfare programs. Evidence, logic and principles are on your side and you can explain very clearly how this needs to happen. But most people want a job far more than they want good fiscal policy. While you’re explaining to them why they need these reforms, the interests at the intersection of big business and big government simply contend they’re “creating or retaining” jobs and you lose overwhelmingly.
I joked on Twitter today that I was going to save this graphic from a depressing Annenberg Center study for the next time I had to convince a policy wonk to tone down the complexity of their messaging for a general audience.
There is a serious point behind that joke: One of the most important roles a communicator plays in an organization is serving as the proxy for their audiences. Before you can communicate effectively with an audience, you have to be able to listen to them — and listen as them — as well.
This is especially critical for groups engaged in advocacy or education, such as think tanks. Communicators have to help subject matter experts distill their work into messaging that’s appropriate for each unique audience, while keeping it all consistent enough across those tiers of complexity. This avoids what I’ve called “messaging arbitrage,” where your inconsistencies in what you say to different audiences can be collected and used against you.
To accomplish this, the communicator needs to be able to put themselves in the audience’s mindset and understand what they value, what they know and what they understand. This lets them be an effective sounding board or even gatekeeper for their subject matter experts, who understandably struggle with the “Curse of Knowledge” in these situations and can value comprehensiveness of argument over comprehension.
I was struck by the way the unions and their allies in Missouri are trying to co-opt the language of individual liberty and thought it would be worthwhile to follow their rhetoric about rights to the logical conclusion. (Spoiler: It’s not where they say it is.)