Mike was in Atlanta this week presenting at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media on a panel about Designing Evidenced-based Communication Strategies to Affect Policy Change. Putting together the presentation about our work on menu labeling, Turning the Tables: Winning Support for the Nation's First Statewide Menu Labeling Law, gave us the opportunity to reflect on the lessons we learned from the campaign.
We’d like to share some of our top tips for communication strategies to affect policy change:
1. Research can be your story: The thrust of our campaign became a “consumer’s right to know issue” after a Field Poll commissioned by our client, the CaliforniaCenter for Public Health Advocacy, showed how little people actually knew about popular fast-food menu items. Of the 523 people surveyed, 68 percent didn’t geta single question right when asked about the calorie content of popular menu items. (Do you think you could do better?) Of those polled, 84 percent supported menu labeling. You can conduct research, and get media attention, to illustrate the need and support for a specific policy change.
2. Simplify the message: People are going to have no interest in what you’re saying if they don’t find what you’re talking about very interesting. It’s your job to make them see why they should care about what you’re saying. Also, it’s easier for people to tune out your message if it’s too complicated for them to quickly understand. A solid message that resonates with the audience forms the backbone of all successful campaigns.
3. Entertain: In response to our bill to put calories on menu boards, the fast-food industry sponsored its own bill that would only require restaurants to hand out brochures. This purposefully ineffective bill offered timid legislators political cover and was quickly championed by the media and public alike. We used a humorous video to show how ridiculous using brochures at fast-food restaurants is in order to redirect public opinion and rally waning political support. Don’t be afraid of communicating in a fun, light-hearted and humorous way. The video was fun for people to watch and really took the wind out of the competition’s sails.
4. Start local: Setting out with a dramatic policy change in mind can seem pretty daunting to advocates working at the local level, but not doing anything in hopes that “someone else will do it” is a huge mistake. Policymakers look for examples of success at the local level before they will throw their support behind major policy change. California’s menu labeling law wouldn’t have come to fruition if advocates in San Francisco and Santa Clara hadn’t first shown that it could be done.
5. Establish a grassroots support system: This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip. Embarking on a major policy change effort requires a lot of ground forces. Local advocates became part of the team, writing letters to the editor and opinion editorials, meeting with editorial boards and writing comments on their local newspaper’s website, to keep the issue in the news and in front of policymakers across the state.
6. Be prepared for the competition: Making major policy changes in the field of public health often means taking on huge industries, such as tobacco, restaurants and soda. No one can deny that these industries have a lot of money to support an army of lobbyists, send “experts” on media tours, and donate funds to medical associations and cash-strapped local governments. They may have more money in the coffers than you, but you have “social good” on your side. Just know that they will come at you with all guns blazing.
7. It’s about the war, not the battle: As I said above, the competition seems to have an unlimited cash flow and is determined to defeat your efforts. But just because you lose a few battles along the way doesn’t mean you will lose the war. Our menu labeling efforts became a two-year endeavor after the governor vetoed the bill the first time around. We were able to bring the governor and Legislature around the second time by creating more pressure with a strong argument (and a great YouTube video). Again, you have “social good” on your side, which ultimately will trump money in the long run. Endurance is key because the “long run” can be a really long time.