While many progressive ideas tend to succeed in the long run, (I’m talking a 30 year time horizon) as a movement we’re not half as effective as our opposition at creating messaging that wins hearts and minds today. There’s a lot of suffering that takes place in that 30 year gap.
Whether it’s the failure of the climate movement to maintain traction, US Republicans turning “energy independence” into a rallying cry for “drill baby drill”, or up here in BC the completely shocking progressive party’s (NDP) loss in the provincial election last month, the social change movement has a lot to be humbled by in our communications work.
Here’s why I think right wing parties and interests resisting change tend to run circles around us in messaging:
1. They use language crafted (and tested) by experts
Republican messaging guru Frank Lunz is famous for saying “80% of our life is emotional, only 20% is intellect”. He teaches the power of language to tap into the deeply held values of a target audience and stick. How does he find out what specific words or phrases move people the most? He tests, like mad, everything.
The last thing you’ll ever hear from someone coached in this school of communications is an abstract, detailed, future-oriented policy solution. Instead they will typically tap a populist vein – often connecting to a deeply held survival fear – that connects to an issue that’s noticeably happening in the culture, now. It works.
Progressives? I can’t tell you how few campaigns I’ve been involved with that had any messaging research, or if they did actually used it to make tough, counter-intuitive messaging decisions. Many campaigns don’t even have a communications expert in the room during the planning stage, or simply don’t listen to their advice.
So we end up with messaging that makes 6 people living in the progressive campaign bubble happy but completely misses the mark with our 60,000 supporters living in the real world. Fail.
2. They repeat 2-3 things, over and over and over and
This one is really hard for progressives. It’s actually part of our psychological makeup: we value complexity, nuance, and the pursuit of perfection (also known as “my vision/analysis/solution is more integrated and thus superior to yours”). This makes us a) really smart and curious and always trying to improve things, b) difficult to collaborate with, and c) terrible at messaging.
Asking a progressive to repeat the same talking point suggested by an expert is like asking a bald eagle to fly only 20 feet from its nest. It just feels wrong.
But we live in a distracted world, with millions of competing messages, most of which have way more money backing them than ours do. To the 0.1% of us in the bubble, repeating the same thing over again is inauthentic, or even disingenuous. But to the rest of the world, if they don’t hear you say the same thing, they won’t remember a single thing you said.
Here is Adrian Dix, the respected policy thinker who clearly got out-messaged as he led BC’s NDP to its surprise defeat last month: “I’m actually a pretty good speech writer, and I like to give thoughtful answers to questions. But you have to be more disciplined during a campaign. You have to decide on two or three messages and get over the hesitation of repeating the same thing day after day. You have to accept that you’re not going to answer [reporters’] questions to some degree and stick with the message.”
3. They use powerful friends to amplify, repeat, and attack
It’s nice when your natural allies are billionaires, think tanks, giant corporations, and captured governments. In addition to nearly unlimited PR budgets, leaders of these groups tend to make respected “independent” spokespeople that are eaten up by the media.
Let’s not underestimate the very intentional echo chamber we’re up against.
So once they craft a potent message and fire up their base by repeating it over and over again, they enlist third party outside groups to amplify and repeat the same language, or make low blow proxy attacks that the official leaders can’t without staying above the fray. It’s very coordinated and extremely effective.
We’ll never have $10M to spend on advertising and PR, or a lot of natural allies who can easily get a voice in the media. But what we have, and that the other side never really does in a sustained way, is the power of our movement. That’s why network campaigns and cross-movement organizing – the bleeding edge of progressive campaigning today – coupled with building real relationships with supporters so they can carry our messages into the world for us, is so critical.
Trying to go it on your own is just tossing pebbles at the castle walls. It’s much more fun with friends.
4. They fund communications well
This one’s pretty obvious: right wing donors and senior leaders fund communications, progressives fund policy. Guess who wins the messaging wars?
I’ve written before how comms is the ugly stepchild in most progressive NGO’s that are often run by policy experts who consider comms at best a necessary but tactical tactic and at worst a drain from “the real work” of the institution. It’s rarely funded well.
In 2009 I worked on what was arguably the world’s biggest progressive campaign, and during the planning process my boss carved $1M out of a $10M overall campaign budget for digital, PR, and messaging. The policy and campaigners went apoplectic! But this was a global campaign, we were up against some of the biggest ad spenders in the world, (the fossil fuel lobby) and it turned out we were vastly outgunned even at this level.
I see a similar dynamic on a smaller scale every week. Funders fund stuff (often more policy analysis, research, and reports) and media/comms work is assumed to be embedded and included, usually as a checklist of tactics thrown in at the end. Like comms was just something you grabbed at the local 7/11 when you had a hankering for a late night chilli dog.
So we spend 90% of our budgets on “making the thing” and then have no time, money, or energy left to “launch the thing” into the world. How can we expect our ideas to be received by the culture faster when our marketing spend is so out of whack with what every marketing expert knows it takes to be successful?
As a comms guy, I would never present myself as an expert on critical policy and campaign decisions. So it’s baffling how many communications professionals lose arguments (or just give up) when our whip smart policy and campaign folks insist they know how the messaging should work, because, well, they just know.
It’s time for the comms world to raise its game and play more of a leadership role in how progressive campaigns are created and executed. The causes we work on demand it of us.