Do charities need to rethink comms tactics to have impact?

Those of us working in comms to raise awareness of the impact of complex social issues on society - for me it is poverty in the UK - have tended to use a variety of tactics in our communication strategies: myth-busting, case studies, audience segmentation and message repetition, for example.

The message on poverty is not getting through, writes Abigail Scott Paul
The message on poverty is not getting through, writes Abigail Scott Paul
Each one shares a common trait: they are designed to get people to think the way we do about an issue. 

But are these really the best approaches to building public understanding and initiating action? 

Political and public attitudes towards people in poverty are as hard as ever and the poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged for almost 25 years.

Despite our best efforts, something in our comms is not working. 

‘Poverty’ as a word and concept is problematic. When talking about this issue, it is not unusual to get the following reactions:

- ‘Real’ poverty does not exist in the UK; it is something that happens overseas in Africa.  

- Poverty is inevitable; there are always going to be those at the top and those at the bottom.  

- Poverty isn’t really an issue because even those people who experience it do not identify as being ‘poor’.

- Most people who are poor are poor because they don’t try hard enough to get themselves out of poverty: these people don't deserve our support. 

Attempts to correct these understandings with evidence, myth-busting and case studies have not led to increased public support for tackling poverty. 

In fact, as our work has explored, media reporting on poverty in the UK is confused and distorted and leads to a politically divisive debate about the causes, measures and solutions to reducing it. 

And ultimately it leads to inaction.

There is acknowledgement in the sector that we are failing to win the public argument. 

We are therefore thinking about how to reframe the poverty debate entirely.   

In the US, campaigners have been successful in changing the way they talk about early adversity in childhood.  

The metaphor of ‘toxic stress’ has been an important part of a larger comms strategy that has helped structure better public understanding of the issue. 

This in turn has created public demand for better policies to help alleviate chronic stress in the early years. 
In fact, the Prime Minister referred to ‘toxic stress’ in his Life Chances speech.

It’s time for us working to tackle poverty in the UK to reassess our communication strategies. 

We need to talk about it in a way that resonates with the public, to increase understanding of the issue and create demand for the need to solve it.  

It’s time to change tack.
Abigail Scott Paul is deputy director of comms at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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