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August 17, 2012

The Roadmap to Social Change

In my line of work, we often say that trying to persuade your audience without testing your message is like driving from New York City to Los Angeles without a map. In both cases, you are guessing your route, and which rarely – if ever – leads to success. Public opinion research provides the roadmap for delivering your campaign’s message to your audience. Research plays a critical role in creating social change by identifying who you go talk to, when you go talk to them, and what you go tell them.

Other values-oriented campaigns, from sweeping, national efforts to achieve marriage equality to local efforts to gain more money for education, use data as a tool to reach their goals. Last year, after the Institute of Medicine recommended that health insurance should cover preventive services that women should get (like birth control and yearly well-woman preventive care visits), we conducted a survey to explore what voters thought about these changes.

Our clients hoped that voters saw this expansion of preventive care as a good thing, a beneficial health service for women. But really, no one knew how voters would react. Would their fiscal concerns in a rocky economic environment make them so cost-sensitive that coverage for preventive care seemed unwise? Would voters’ disdain for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, cloud their judgment of covering these services? We needed to create our map to chart the course or we’d only guess at how to talk about these services with voters.

We found that voters’ knowledge about the ACA was relatively low and that Independent women, older women, and women of color were key populations to inform, persuade, and mobilize. We learned it was best to shift the emphasis from a political frame to a consumer frame.  Women who are 80 percent of the health care decision makers were not paying any attention to what the bill could do for themselves and their families because they saw this as a big political fight with nothing relevant to them. We needed to make it a consumer issue with services and protections that were important for their families. And we discovered that best messages in support of the new health care reform law focus on prevention and making health care more secure for families.

But there is more to creating this road map that looking at our audience as a whole. No matter whom you are talking to, you are going to find nuances between different subgroups. Here, we saw that we needed to target specific populations of women and use appropriate comprehensive prevention messaging. For older women this meant we should focus on coverage of mammograms and cancer screenings, of annual exams with no co-pays, and Medicare with no co-pays. Younger women responded strongly to getting birth control at no additional cost and coverage of prenatal care. We could have guessed that these services would appeal to women based on what we know about their health needs. But with public opinion research, we had the road map and we knew what to say.

On the path of social change there are detours, rough spots, blind curves, intersections, and work zones. Giving yourself the advantage of having a road map can get you from point A to point B successfully.

Art by lizar_tistry