Even the best ideas rarely have an easy and smooth path to reality. In our increasingly polarised social and political climate what passes for debate is more often a shouting match. Anyone with a social media account has a soapbox from which to push their opinions, and a pair of metaphorical earplugs to block out opposing views.
The task of nudging your audiences towards a particular opinion, action or behaviour requires a thoughtful and sophisticated approach.
1. Get personal
Real-life conversations are your secret weapon. Often a chat with a friend, neighbour or workmate will be the conversation that changes a person’s mind.
Last year, a study by US researchers from the University of California and Stanford University found that even a short 10-minute conversation could reduce prejudice against transgender people. In the Irish same sex plebiscite, the #ringyourgrannycampaign, which urged young people to persuade their grandparents to support marriage equality, was a pivotal factor to the success of the yes campaign.
We’re currently witnessing similar appeals to emotion in our own same sex marriage debate, with no voters urging us to “think of the children,” and the yes camp emphasising human rights and rejecting discrimination. Like the yes campaigners, organisations can encourage conversations by providing supporters with talking points and tips to help them start meaningful conversations.
Personal testimonies of traumatic experiences are also persuasive, because they make the rest of the community bear witness. The sight of an ordinary, middle-aged Australian man – Terry Hicks, father of former terrorist suspect David Hicks – in a replica Guantanamo Bay steel cage, influenced a turn in Australian public opinion that contributed to Hicks’ eventual return home.
Similarly, the powerful and articulate testimony of Naomi Halpern, a victim of poor financial advice whose life was devastated by the collapse of the Timbercorp management investment scheme, contributed to an overhaul of Australia’s financial planning industry.
According to Chris Black, who has served as a non-Executive Director of Yarra Community Housing and a social housing provider with nearly 2,000 tenants across Victoria, and is currently a Director of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, campaigns that share personal experiences are not only more touching, but more effective.
“Campaigns that give a real platform for the voices of homeless people will always be more successful than those fronted by people in suits, and there are a growing number of advocacy groups made up of people with lived experience,” explains Chris, who we are proud to say is also 89 Degrees East’s Project Manager and Content Developer.
2. Engage the other
Sometimes it’s worth tackling your campaign’s counter argument head on, rather than pretending they don’t exist.
The SBS television show Go Back to Where You Came From took a group of participants with strong, diverse opinions on Australia’s asylum seeker policies on their own reversed refugee journey. Not every contestant changed their mind on the issue, but all were forced to confront and defend their position.
Broadcasting a change of heart story is another powerful way to encourage others to interrogate their beliefs, which are often formed through political, religious or other affiliations, rather than personal consideration.
This recent Airbnb video in support of same sex marriage, which tells the story of a blokey dad who abandoned his homophobic attitudes to accept his gay son, is another example.
Despite social media’s reputation as an echo chamber filled with people with intractable opinions, it remains an effective avenue to engage – cautiously! – with opponents. A poll by Galaxy Research during last year’s election found that more than half of Twitter users were not committed to voting a certain way, and 22% of users changed their voting intentions based on something they saw on Twitter.
3. Do your research
There’s a good reason why market research and opinion polling is a multi-million dollar industry. To achieve change, you have to know who you need to persuade and what they care about, not what you think they should care about.
Independent pollster JWS Research regularly publishes its “True Issues” polling for business and government to gauge the issues at the front of Australians’ minds. Not surprisingly, the economy, health, and education are always voters’ top preoccupations. But sometimes there are surprising nuggets of information; people are more concerned about mental health care and rising energy costs than they were four months ago (True Issue #13, July 2017).
Knowledge, such as polling or new research, can be used to educate your audiences in order to influence their opinions or behaviours.
Chris Black cites the Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot as one of the most effective efforts towards creating a more sophisticated understanding of homelessness and its relationship to a lack of affordable housing.
“The study provides national data on rental properties available to people in low-income brackets in communities across the country. Its key elements are good data collection, clear messaging about who is affected at a local level, and the ability to track changes over time. Every year it gets attention in just about every local paper and radio station around the country,” says Chris.
If you don't have much of a budget, Survey Monkey, Facebook and Twitter allow limited research for minimal cost.
4 Engage influencers (carefully) and get creative
Anyone who’s ever tuned out during a university lecture knows that a poorly delivered argument based on knowledge, facts and figures (even if they are true) can be isolating rather than enlightening. A powerful speaker and creative presentation go a long way.
It’s important to support your organisation’s contention with evidence, but that alone does not maketh a communications strategy.
That’s why you need appeals to emotion, punchy slogans, or shock value; case in point are the “every cigarette is doing you damage” ads, complete with a clogged and oozing artery now permanently seared into Australia’s collective retina.
Another way to get your campaign or issue on the agenda is by recruiting a well known and highly regarded spokesperson or brand ambassador to align themselves with your cause and convince others of its value.
The CEO Sleepouts for homelessness, run by a number of large charities, are a successful initiative that draws on the power of high profile participants.
“Primarily, these events aim to educate and inform those in positions of power about the causes and solutions for homelessness, and to raise corporate funds. Not everyone supports these events, particularly when some CEOs are seen whisked away in the back of a limousine when the cameras stop rolling!” says Chris.
If you’re going to align your organisation with a high profile individual, do your homework and be aware of the potential ramifications. It was only a year ago that Porsche was forced to drop Sonia Krugeras an ambassador after her comments about Muslim immigration were deemed counter to Porsche’s values.
5. Persistence and Repetition
Considering the volatility of federal politics in recent years, it seems remarkable that almost 20 years ago Australians went to a federal election widely considered a “referendum” on a major new tax, and voted for it.
However, the GST was an idea with a very long gestation. First proposed by Paul Keating at the 1985 Tax Summit, it was knocked back by the unions and business. Later Coalition leader John Hewson revived the idea, again in time to be the centrepiece of his 1993 Fightback! Election package, only to lose the “unloseable” election.
Finally, Prime Minister John Howard, looking for a major economic policy to take to the 1998 election, adopted the GST as Coalition policy. After hearing about the GST for 13 years, the electorate was ready.
This goes to the heart of campaigning – insiders call it “the vomit principle” – that saying something once is never enough.
It’s only when you’ve repeated yourself so many time you think you might vomit that people are really hearing you for the first time.