By Gene Lewitt, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Over the years, I’ve been part of countless strategic planning discussions that focus on the difference between the conversations around a certain issue that are taking place and the conversations advocates want to take place. There’s good reason changing public policy conversations often feels insurmountable. Completely reframing an issue takes time and significant discipline. But it can be done—and a new report, The Narrative Communications Project: Takeaway Findings on a Message-Framing Approach, released today by Mathematica Policy Research details how.
Many readers of Say Ahhh! are no doubt familiar with the story of the reframing of the children’s coverage conversation. The Mathematica report sheds new light on the experience of the state-based advocates in that reframing work and includes the specific message sets used to move the conversation. Findings from this study show the importance of strategic investments, as well as lessons for advocates, funders and communications professionals on the value of message framing and an advocacy strategy rooted in a positive, “glass-half-full” approach.
Anyone who follows the children’s health insurance coverage arena already understands that the increases in coverage for children at the state level were in large part the product of many years of hard work and commitment by state advocates. These advocates are on the front lines of children’s coverage, partnering with national organizations like the Georgetown Center for Children and Families and the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities who give them tools and information to help advance the coverage agenda.
But what this report demonstrates is how the state groups embraced a new kind of communications and messaging strategy that helped them regain momentum when further progress appeared stalled. Six years ago, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in partnership with Spitfire Strategies and First Focus, launched a new communications strategy, The Narrative Communications Project, for its children’s coverage efforts. The Narrative shifted messaging away from the traditional focus on the problem—the large number of uninsured children—and toward a new focus on the successes of existing coverage programs (Medicaid and CHIP) and the need to expand them.
The Narrative provided in addition to dollars ongoing real-time technical assistance to state-based groups to help them with implementation of the communications strategy. This assistance focused on fitting the communications work to the specific context of the policy landscape in each state and helped create learning collaborative among participants that helped them hone their skills and learn from each other.
Mathematica found this “glass-half-full” messaging approach and tailored technical assistance changed the conversation in the media and policy discussions in 73% of the states in which Packard was invested. Specifically, the Narrative allowed advocates to talk about how coverage programs were working, rather than where they were weak. Most important of all, these messaging successes were frequently followed by gains in coverage.