Message Discipline: Ignore it at Your Own Risk

Housing & Homelessness

MegaphoneBoyWhen I was a congressional staffer, we Democrats routinely lost the communications battle to our GOP colleagues. Not because they had a better message (though they sometimes did), but because they chose a message and stuck to it. A great POLITICO article by Ginger Gibson explores how things have changed and provides a timely lesson for children’s advocacy communications.

You’ll never see a Dorito’s commercial once, or hear one play of a new song from a major recording artist. That’s because product marketers understand the basic truth that persuading your audience requires consistent repetition of your message. That’s just as true when persuading policymakers or voters to invest in kids as when persuading consumers to buy chips or download songs.

Most nonprofits don’t have the budget required to buy repetition. In the competitive communications climate typical of public affairs debates, the most effective way to get repetition is consistency. If we have 10 opportunities to communicate on an issue this month, we’ll be more effective in total if we can deliver the same message 10 times. And if each of our five coalition partners has 10 opportunities, sharing our message and encouraging our colleagues to use it makes a bigger impact than any one organization could make on its own.

One of my favorite projects, when I worked at Spitfire Strategies, was the Narrative Project — a long-term investment designed to help children’s health advocates establish this “message discipline” and use it to their strategic advantage. That initiative, funded by the communications-savvy David & Lucile Packard Foundation and First Focus, was incredibly successful, as demonstrated by an independent Mathematica Policy Research evaluation.

There are many reasons for Narrative’s success, but one important contributing factor was the shared commitment to consistency, within advocacy organizations over time, and across coalition partners. Because we were disciplined in our delivery of shared messages, our communications had more impact together than if we’d each delivered different messages or abandoned an effective message because of momentary shifts in the political winds. But it doesn’t take years for consistency to pay off — coverage of our 2012 foreclosures report had more impact because most of the news coverage included our message that one-in-ten kids had been affected by foreclosures.

For purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter whether the GOP is right or wrong on sequestration. What matters is that they’ve lost the strategic advantage that comes with message discipline. Our experience with the Narrative Project shows that children’s advocates can do better.