This morning, NPQ is proud to present the first of a regular series of columns by the FrameWorks Institute on how to improve the effectiveness of our messages on contentious social issues. This one is written by the esteemed Susan Nall Bales, who will walk us through the uses and abuses of narratives in communicating about immigration. While each column may use the example of a particular social issue, you need not be in that field to benefit from the instruction.
Struggling to find a path of action in the midst of the Reagan administration, Edward Said, the noted Palestinian American literary critic, warned: “The challenge posed by [the perspectives of Reaganism] is not how to cultivate one’s garden despite them but how to understand the cultural work occurring within them.”1
Struggling in the midst of the Trump administration, advocates can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the rate and volume of cultural products being generated. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of immigration. A barrage of news has dramatically shortened the conceptual distance between crime, terrorism and immigration. The contemplated presence of even an imaginary wall reinforces the cognitive distinction between “us” (the public) and “them” (immigrants). And this is happening every day in every form of media, as we are subjected to daily demonization of immigrants who came to our country as children, who have temporary residency, or who come from countries with travel bans. This is the new cultural product of our time.
What are progressive policy framers to do? How should we think about what is being shaped and reconfigured by these activities? How can we think strategically about how to improve our cultural production to combat what is now in our drinking water? How can we make our ideas stickier and more persuasive?
Advocates are subjected daily to polls that purport to provide answers. But if you don’t understand how an engine works, you can’t repair it. What is the framework of interpretation that will help immigration reform advocates evaluate the cultural products in circulation and choose a better option? The same formula of theory plus evidence-based practice that is required for good policy development is needed to inform our framing efforts.
A good theory of cultural production should identify the questions we need to ask and point us in a direction to find answers. Sound practice should deliver answers in the form of evidence to drive our subsequent work. We should be able to kick the tires of our cultural products and make sure they hold up. How might we go about this?
In their popular synthesis of the social science of opinion formation and change, Made to Stick,2 Chip and Dan Heath offer a succinct theory that can be adapted across social issues. It looks like this:
If we apply this theory to immigration, we can discern what kind of data we need to collect to drive an effective communications strategy. Not just any old poll or more data, but a refined recipe of data that can be subjected to particular questions. Drawing from FrameWorks’ multi-method investigation of how Americans think about immigration,3 let’s look at how each step of the theoretical model is answered in a systematic research process and how this totality results in a plan of action.
FIND THE CORE
First, we must reduce the message to its gist, focusing on the key aspects of the immigration system that Americans need to know in order to effectively evaluate solutions. FrameWorks does this by interviewing thought leaders on a given topic and synthesizing their recommendations into a coherent draft narrative—what we call the “untranslated story.” This differs markedly from common practice, which tends to equate what is popular and resonant to the communications deliverable. On immigration, FrameWorks’ method yielded this composite:4
Put simply, as the National Academies of Science and others have attested, the United States needs to do a better job integrating immigrants into society and providing opportunities so they can achieve and contribute. In an ideal world, this simple set of messages could be delivered by advocates around the country and prove a potent cultural product. In reality, research shows, these messages will dissolve and dissipate in public discourse if left untranslated, leaving little trace.
WHY ISN’T IT HAPPENING NATURALLY?
What prevents these simple messages from sticking? That is the challenge that the Heaths posed in their theoretical model, and the challenge that FrameWorks pursues via long-form interviews that examine the enduring beliefs and conceptualizations that Americans routinely bring to bear on the subject of immigration. FrameWorks uses the heuristic of a “swamp” of cultural models—a rich ecosystem of ideas that are grown and fed over time, that thrive or decay, become dominant or recessive—to explain what “eats” the expert message. Stubborn and persistent but also assailable and manipulable, cultural models are the overlooked obstacle that advocates ignore at their peril. Psychological anthropologist Bradd Shore explains that “the work of a policy framer is to change the salience of the models.”5 By changing the model that is foregrounded, we can move from an understanding that is “fuzzy” to one that