What’s in a frame? The poverty sector’s search for convincing messages


At a recent event, I listened to a US campaigner describe how they fought and won the long battle for equal marriage.

At first, she said, they talked about rights for LGBTQ people – the right to participate in society in the same measure as their straight contemporaries – to marry, to be recognised as their loved one’s legal partner. These rights mattered to the community. But it turned out that talking about legal rights didn’t tug the public’s heart strings in the right direction.

When the campaign started talking about love, commitment and family – simple, relatable reasons to want to get married – and using the strong American value of the ‘Golden Rule’ (treat others as you’d like to be treated), support for marriage equality soared by 20 points in a decade.

In other words, through much research, trial and error, the campaign successfully ‘reframed’ equal marriage in a way that allowed those previously conflicted to feel like it was an idea that people like them could be comfortable with.

Another country, another issue: Child poverty campaigners in the UK often get a sinking feeling looking at public polls. While the public thinks there is poverty in the UK, and that the government should do something about it, they are sharply divided from the experts on its causes and solutions (though we found 88% thought household income was very important in measuring poverty).

So what to do? Across the sector, organisations are responding, and sharing what they’re learning. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has embarked on a major research project with the Frameworks Institute, to come up with a new public narrative on poverty. I recently heard some of the results of the Framework Institute’s work with criminal justice charities, so it’s exciting to look forward to the findings from the JRF project. But in the meantime, what should we be saying?

Thanks to the support of Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, we’ve been looking at this question and, more generally, how we communicate. As part of this work, we conducted a bit of polling. We wanted to know which of the messages we use gave us an incremental edge in talking to the general public. To phrase it modestly, we were looking for which lines appealed to our supporter base but also kept people who might be ambivalent about our message from switching off?

First we tested the proportion of our sample who thought that the best way to target child poverty was for parents to change their behaviour (poverty as an issue for individuals), and the proportion who thought the government should do more to help struggling families (poverty as a structural issue). We found a fairly even split between these two attitudes, with about a third falling somewhere in between. This fits with many analyses of attitudes towards social issues, which point to a ‘conflicted middle’ as the elusive target for attitude-change campaigns.

We then tested a series of messages, to find out which were most persuasive as a case for government action on child poverty. The winning message was based on a case for investing in children, with 73% finding it persuasive or very persuasive:

“Supporting our children is the best investment we as a country can make. If the Government makes sure every child has the opportunity to do well in life then we all share the rewards of having a stronger economy and a healthier, fairer society."

This statement was persuasive both for people who already supported government action, and those who thought more responsibility lay with parents. It also produced the largest shift in respondents who moved from an individual to a structural view of poverty by the end of the survey, with 85% of ‘switchers’ finding it persuasive.

The second strongest message, which also performed particularly well with those who shifted their views on government action, was:

"Hardship isn’t inevitable. It is caused by low wages, expensive housing and childcare and a lack of available jobs. These issues need to be tackled if we want fewer children growing up in hardship."

We think this works well because it reminds the reader that poverty is solvable – as our Chief Executive Alison Garnham often says, poverty is policy-responsive. Other research across the sector has found making these issues relatable, practical and solvable resonates well across audiences.

For those who think poverty should be tackled mainly by individuals rather than the state, the least persuasive of the messages we tested (scoring only 38%) comes as little surprise:

 "One of the important jobs social security does is to keep families out of poverty. We should be proud of our benefits system and make sure it is adequately funded so it does its job well."

It was somewhat heartening that by the end of the survey the number of respondents supporting the structural approach to ending poverty had increased, albeit by only a few percentage points (from 34% to 39%).

There are problems with testing in this way – did the respondents’ self-reported impression of the different messages match how they’d respond in real-world environment? And would the persuasive effect last for longer than the length of the survey? However, as a guide to our communications messaging, we felt the survey gave a good steer.

While the sector as a whole undoubtedly needs to adopt a new approach, fine-tuning our messaging can also help us take small steps towards communicating better on behalf of the people who really need us to. 

Related Publication

OUT NOW - NEW Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook 2017/18Welfare Benefits & Tax Credits Handbook 2017-2018

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Upcoming events for 2017

Two Child Limit – Implementation, Challenges and the Policy Context Two Child Limit – Implementation, Challenges and the Policy Context

London Thursday 22 June 2017 

This seminar will examine the two child limit in tax credits and means-tested benefits and its inevitable impact on child poverty.

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Welfare Rights Conference 2017Welfare Rights Conference 2017

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Manchester Thursday 7 September 2017
London Thursday 14 September 2017

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