In Making Social Change, Message Matters
How we talk about homelessness has a direct effect on support for our work. By learning how to effectively frame a message, we can ensure that findings from research have a real impact. That was the message at a communication workshop at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference this past month.
The session, which drew about 200 participants, included a communication research presentation by Julie Sweetland from the Frameworks Institute. After that presentation, Chapin Hall Communication Director Marrianne McMullen and Building Changes Communications and Development Director Christena Coutsboubos provided examples of how they use Frameworks research in forming messages about homelessness and other issues.
“Frames are sets of choices we make about communications—we decide what we want to emphasize and how we explain our issue,” said Sweetland. With a rich set of evidence-based examples, Sweetland showed how framing affects response to an issue.
For example, when asked “Given our commitment to free speech, would you support a hate group holding a rally?” 85% of respondents answered “yes.” When the same question was asked “Given the risk of violence, would you support a hate group holding a rally?” only 40% of respondents answered affirmatively. That’s framing.
In one salient example, Sweetland said that when people hear “vulnerable child,” they think “bad parent.” This frame, she said, leads people to conclude that the problem is personal rather than one that calls for a public response.
Messages are most effective when framed in broad themes, all of the speakers emphasized. Stories about individuals most often lead to personal judgement, while broader, thematic messages elicit support for a community response to an issue.
McMullen emphasized three strong themes to use in communicating about homelessness that move beyond talking about the individuals who are most directly affected:
- Community benefit: Explain how the entire community suffers when people are homeless, and how the community will benefit from addressing it.
- Human potential: Emphasize that housing instability and the dangers of being homeless lead to unfulfilled human potential—potential that, if fulfilled, can benefit us all.
- Fairness across place: When you focus on place over individuals, you can rally the community behind an issue. “The people of this community should have the same opportunities and resources as other communities.”
Coutsboubos laid out a three step approach to building a message: the story, the frame and then data to support both. “I think in terms of ‘Goldilocks data.’ Not too much, and not too little – just the right amount,” she said.