Contributor Christina Palassio talked to renowned communications strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio recently about the power and promise of positive messaging and how non-profits and charities – from leaders and funders to fundraisers and communicators – can navigate increasingly polarized and polarizing political and cultural environments and move donors and supporters to take action for lasting positive, unifying change.
If you’ve ever asked yourself “How can I move people to care about my cause and take action?” you’ll be interested in Anat Shenker-Osorio’s messaging philosophy and principles.
Shenker-Osorio has been working with progressive social and political campaigns for close to 20 years. Her California–based firm, ASO Communications, advised on messaging for Jacinda Ardern’s winning campaign in New Zealand, trained leaders who drove abortion-rights campaigns in Argentina and Ireland, contributed to get-out-the-vote campaigns in US battleground states, and led efforts to reframe the narrative around asylum-seekers in Australia.
Shenker-Osorio has developed several cardinal rules of messaging over the years, which you can see in action in the tested messaging guides on climate justice, transgender rights, education, and race and class that she makes available on her website. To be effective, she says, change messages have to explain the root cause of the problem they’re addressing. Organizations and campaigners should never message on their opponent’s terrain. And the best way to motivate and mobilize people to believe that change is possible is by uniting people around a shared vision of the future – what she calls painting the beautiful tomorrow.
In an interview with The Philanthropist Journal, Shenker-Osorio talked about the power and promise of positive messaging and how non-profits and charities – from leaders and funders to fundraisers and communicators – can navigate increasingly polarized and polarizing political and cultural environments and move donors and supporters to take action for lasting positive, unifying change.
You say that for progressive causes to win, they have to unite people around what they’re for, not what they’re against. You call it “painting the beautiful tomorrow.” How do you paint the beautiful tomorrow?
What we see in our testing, and it’s pretty common-sensical, is that many people are down, exhausted, demoralized, despondent. We need to recognize that our opposition is not just the opposition; it is also cynicism. It is also this overwhelming sense that this is the best of all possible worlds and the people who have all the power have all the power and there’s no utility to trying to do anything about it because they’re all just so big.
Many people are down, exhausted, demoralized, despondent. We need to recognize that our opposition is not just the opposition; it is also cynicism.
How do you get over that feeling – which is a huge inhibitor to collective action – and make people think participation is actually a viable thing to do, when your message is just an extended litany of how terrible things are?
Part of painting the beautiful tomorrow is the idea of having positive demands as opposed to negative demands. You need a positive demand if you want people to come to your cause. You need to attract them to your cause, and you need to fight and overcome cynicism. You want to be very specific about the thing that you want to have happen in the world.
Part of painting the beautiful tomorrow is the idea of having positive demands as opposed to negative demands.
An example is the climate battle and the idea of a Green New Deal. A lot of the [US] Green New Deal messaging has been about saying what we’re for, what we want, what we can have. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an ad with the illustrator Molly Crabapple as part of the launch of the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal [called A Message from the Future]. There’s a beautiful-tomorrow ad.
What we need to remember is that the purpose of strategic communications is not to raise awareness. Raising awareness is not a goal. Changing X policy by Y date or making X people do Y thing by Z date – those are goals.
How do you paint the beautiful tomorrow in a fundraising context where prevailing wisdom says that we need to use negative messages to create fear and urgency?
It’s funny – in all the places that I’ve been able to convince folks to make a shift away from what I call “harms and horrors” messaging, the place that remains sacrosanct is fundraising. I can get the comms department on board, I can get media, I can get the policy folks, but the admonition is “Don’t touch fundraising. We’re not changing fundraising. You will not be in on how we message our asks.”
What is deeply damaging about that is that for many organizations, especially those that are involved in direct action and that fundraise off of large online lists of small donors, the majority of their discourse is fundraising. The majority of what they say to people are these asks. And so the inability to impact how those asks are worded is really a problem.
There is this old-school belief that the way that you get money is by hitting people over the head over and over again about how terrible things are. Activists, for the most part, are into the “Boy have I got a problem for you” message. They’re like, “A new problem? I never met a problem I didn’t love. Please tell me about more problems.” But for most human beings, that does not float their boat. Because that’s not how you move human beings. [When we use harms-and-horrors messaging] we’re not using our words to increase who is activated. We’re not motivating the people who are ideologically aligned with us to take action. That’s a problem.
There is this old-school belief that the way that you get money is by hitting people over the head over and over again about how terrible things are. But for most human beings, that does not float their boat.
There’s a belief system, especially in online fundraising, that’s born of tithing in church, that says that you go to your most loyal supporters most often for most of your support. Who supports the church? It’s the same people that are in the pews every Sunday. And you keep asking the people who gave to you last Sunday to give to you this Sunday. That is the model and that is the basis for online fundraising. That’s where it comes from. However, what we see is that not only is that not a way to get new people into the pews, there are diminishing financial returns to continuing to do that to your most loyal people because at a certain point, you start to sound like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. And people are like, “But you said the sky was falling last week.” What we’re seeing is that it is creating massive amounts of list burnout, it creates higher opt-out rates, and it’s not the most effective fundraising tactic.
There are organizations with whom I’ve worked that have done A/B tests where they do the standard “The sky is falling” message and an affirmation; the affirmation gets people to give more money. It also creates less churn and burn.
Are there long-term impacts of focusing on negative messaging?
What I really believe is that this “Everything is horrible” message [in politics] is making people more conservative over time.
People are complicated. There are a handful of outliers who are completely neophilic, tolerant of ambiguity, and feel very comfortable with new experiences and complexity and change over time. And another handful of people who are completely opposite and completely neophobic and you’ll never move them. But social science research bears out that most of us exist within a spectrum. And people who are inherently more progressive are on the more neophilic side of that spectrum.
When we continue to put out this messaging that says to people the world is a scary, dangerous, terrible place, they become more reactionary.
We all retreat to a smaller sense of the familiar when we feel threatened. And those impulses are great for a right-wing point of view that says you’re on your own; you look out for number one – there’s no such thing as interdependence. And so when we continue to put out this messaging that says to people the world is a scary, dangerous, terrible place, they become more reactionary.
Another messaging rule you have is that you can’t win if you’re messaging on somebody else’s terrain. Sometimes, the instinct in messaging is to start by acknowledging your opponent’s premise instead of pushing out your own messaging. For example, when urban violence rises, calls for increased police presence often follow. If you’re a mental health organization, you might say, “Yes, we need to address the violence in our streets and keep people safe, but we also need to make sure people have the mental health support they need.” Is this an effective message? What might be a better message?
A good example would be “No matter what we look like, where we come from, or how much money is in our wallet, most of us know someone who has struggled with mental health, whether that’s a blip on the radar, a really bad day, or an extended period where you can’t get out of bed. For a handful of Canadians, having mental health challenges means the difference between having a place to lay your head and sleeping outside in the cold. We can make this a place where everyone can get the care and support that they need to be able to live in safety and have a healthy life.”
It’s not about feeling sorry for people. It’s about building a “doing as someone you love” campaign.
Don’t start out by creating sympathy. This is a really important thing. It’s not about feeling sorry for people. It’s about building a “doing as someone you love” campaign. What I mean by this is, instead of saying, “Here’s this third party, this is their situation, this is why they’ve struggled with mental health, or this is why they’ve experienced homelessness. Look at them, feel bad for them” – the best that you can derive out of that kind of a start to a message is sympathy, where people say, “I feel bad for those people.” But that is a form of “otherizing.” If you feel bad for those people, that has nothing to do with you.
If, by contrast, you say, “Many of us know too well the pain of seeing a loved one struggle with their mental health” or “Someone you love may need mental healthcare someday, and what will they do then?” That then makes it personal to that person. It connects the message recipient and the issue they’re going to be supporting.
You say that change messages have to explain the root or cause of the problem to effectively call people to action. You call it call-in, call-out, call-in messaging. Say I’m trying to build that message for my issue, but in the call-out section, I need to point a finger at the government, which is not doing its job, or at the corporate sector, which is avoiding responsibility, and these are my funders. What do I do?
If you’re an organization that is challenging child poverty and hunger, the fact that you rely on Nabisco or Monsanto or whomever for funding – what that means is, and forgive the pun, that you’re only ever going to be able to nibble at the edges. You’ll be able to provide some direct services, but you’re never going to be able to make an upstream demand, let alone mobilize a group of people to actually take this on because you can’t say the things that you need to say. It’s a very big problem.
So what do you actually do? You don’t call out the villain by name if you need those villains to tolerate or like you, but you do use words that at least imply causation. So rather than saying, for example, “The number of children without food is growing, families are struggling, the gap between rich and poor is growing” – all of which is utterly non-causal; it suggests that maybe zombies happened or it’s a product of the weather – you say, instead, “Our choice to have Canadian kids go to bed hungry is just us. It’s a choice and we don’t need to keep making it. We can ensure that every single one of our families has enough to eat and a roof over their head.” You know, whatever it is you’re fighting for, whatever it is you’re advocating for in the particular moment by passing X, Y, Z – you can use words like “our decision,” “our choice.” It’s a choice we don’t need to keep making. You can be more elusive in how you name the villains in the central call-out section and say [that] a handful of wealthy, powerful people are determined to hold down our wages and keep our families struggling.
Shenker-Osorio’s call-in, call-out, call-in messaging applied to the climate crisis
|Whether we live among corn fields or bodegas, forests or freeways, we all want our families to grow up healthy and thrive for generations
|For too long, fossil fuel CEOs and corrupt politicians have divided and distracted us with lies while they pollute our air and poison our water. They exploit our differences to pick and choose where to dump toxins based on the contents of our wallets and the colour of our skin.
|By coming together across race and place to rewrite the rules, we will heal the damage done to our communities and power our future with locally made
energy from the wind and sun, while creating millions of good jobs and healthy neighbourhoods for all of our families.
What are some easy and cost-effective ways that non-profits with limited resources can test their messaging?
There’s lots of ways to either test on a shoestring or avail yourself of existing wisdom. So the first thing that I would say is don’t recreate the wheel. Good messaging is about repetition; it’s about having an overarching story that we all echo. Look around for messaging guides that already exist on that topic. ASO Communications is absolutely wedded to being a completely open-source model. Look at our website, look at other good messaging resources, start off with messaging that other people have tested, and try to adapt it to your context.
Start off with messaging that other people have tested, and try to adapt it to your context.
The next thing is that there’s always testing on the cheap. If you happen to have a really big list, you can always be doing A/B testing. And instead of just doing A/B testing to look at, you know, how many people open up the email or share the Facebook post or whatever, you can do some social listening to see what is the engagement with the A version of this message versus the B version, even with your own choir.
You have a podcast, Words to Win By, where you present case studies of winning campaigns from around the globe and dissect how the messaging was developed and used to activate people. It’s a great tool for communicators and campaigners. Will it continue?
I would really like it to. There is no concrete plan. I hate ads. So because I don’t want ads, I have to find another way to pay the money to make the thing. There is a plan in the works – I just have to make sure that I get it financed.
We have some great stories to tell. I pitched in on the Brazilian election. I really want to do that story. There’s an incredible electoral story in Honduras, which is where my husband is from, and a place that I’m very tied to and care about. There’s the midterm election in the US. There’s a really cool, fun little story about a big win on housing from the Travellers community in Ireland. There are some really good stories that I’d like to tell.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.