Do We Need Different Messages for Influencing Policy Makers?

Influencing policy makers is essential for social change. Do we need different messages for policy makers? Do policy makers have different cultural models?

Recently, in response to a presentation of the first stage of our descriptive research on Environmental Health, this question was sent from experts in the field to our research associates, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland.

Nat and Eric respond:

“There are two answers to this question. The first answer is that public understandings and media discourse profoundly influence policy makers and shape the policies they make. The second answer is that policy makers are people too.

Let’s take on these answers in turn and drill down a little deeper.

1)  Public understandings and media discourse profoundly influence policy makers and shape the policies they make.

By conducting research on public understandings and dominant media frames around social issues, we identify the common drivers for shaping public opinion that influence policy maker perspectives.

In our work, we typically look for informants who are active in community organizations, who have expressed an opinion on a social issue to an elected official, and who are highly attentive to the news media. These people who are the “first responders” to ideas in their communities and are likely to be those who convey and shape these ideas within their communities and to their elected leaders.

We conduct research with these people because they are essential to elevating an issue in public discourse and building the public will to engage policymakers. We think that policy making and policy makers are strongly influenced by how these people understand social issues and the viability of policy solutions.

We also conduct media content analyses of all the major media outlets (both online and print) that are most influential for shaping the public conversation on these issues. We map out the dominant media storylines and assess how they reinforce or challenge the public’s cultural models for thinking about these issues. These media outlets are the same ones that policymakers use to gauge public opinion and inform their decisions.

2) Policy makers are people too.

We often forget that alongside their policy positions, professional cultures, educational backgrounds, and the dictates of their jobs, policy makers are nonetheless members of the very same culture that shapes public understanding more broadly. They typically share in the same deep assumptions and dominant cultural models that inform that culture. This is why our response to this frequently asked question is, “Believe it or not, policy makers are people too.”

We say this because we have conducted research across several social issues that shows policy makers employ the same deep, underlying and implicit understandings as the public of how the world works. This is not to say that they don’t have their own unique perspectives on issues derived from the experiences that they share with their fellow policy makers. But culture is not a zero sum game.

People can have understandings that are shaped by common experience at many levels. In this way, policy makers share American cultural models because of their membership in American culture, while simultaneously drawing on more specialized and specific understandings that are the result of their membership in policymaking bodies.

We find Roger Keesing particularly helpful on this point in his discussion of how scientists are people too. He writes:

“The physical sciences has progressively penetrated through and beyond everyday, common-sense models of experienced “reality.” Yet the physicist leaves subatomic particles behind, the mathematician non-Euclidean geometry, as they enter the parking lot and drive home through a world of seemingly solid objects, flat surfaces, and straight lines. Moreover, conventional metaphors and common sense cannot be expunged from the natural languages to which the most precise scientists must have recourse. Disengaging what passes for behavioral science from “folk” models and conventional metaphors is hopeless: Most of psychology reflects common-sense cultural models of mind and reified metaphors.” (1987, p. 374-375).

What this means is that communications strategies that are built around shared cultural models are likely to affect all of those individuals who belong to that group. Communications strategies designed and tested to work at the level of American cultural understandings should affect individuals who belong to this general cultural group, regardless of their more specific memberships and allegiances.


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