Communicating on Difficult Issues (Case Study)

Question: As a small domestic violence service agency in rural Pennsylvania, we face a real communications challenge. Whenever we publicize our existence or events or what have you, our communications are seen as bad news, i.e. that there is domestic violence in our county. How do we make sure the public is aware of this important issue and of the help that is available without “turning off”? The general public often holds erroneous beliefs about the cause, prevalence, etc. of domestic violence.

– Cheryl Miller
Training Coordinator/Legal Advocate
Clarion County, PA

Dear Cheryl,

You’re facing a classic communications dilemma – talking about an issue that makes people uncomfortable. Many audiences don’t want to hear it and respond with the “it has nothing to do with me, so I don’t want to know about it” mind-set. So how do you communicate in a way that ensures your audiences really listen to what you’re saying, and respond in the way you wish?

Keep in mind that, in most cases, the underlying foundation of difficult issues is the soft, or the human, issues – attitudes, opinions, self-image, values, beliefs, and feelings about how the world is organized and people’s place in it. This context is difficult enough to tackle in a one-to-one, face-to-face conversation, much less through broader communications strategies.

However, Cheryl, you’ve already identified the challenge (an important first step), and there are definitely some concrete steps you can take to build public awareness of the issue and ensure that county residents know that SAFE is there to help.

Clearly define your communications goals

The first step is to precisely define your communications goals so that you focus your communications work in the right direction. Here’s what I think your goals are likely to be:

  • Raise awareness that SAFE is there to help victims of domestic violence.
  • Educate the public about domestic violence so that people are able to identify their situation as victims or abusers.
  • Motivate behavioral change among abusers and abuse victims.
  • Change policy to improve protection for and support of victims of domestic violence.

In order to achieve these goals, SAFE must:

  • Create and/or retain a positive reputation in the community so that the legal and social welfare systems, county government, education and religious institutions, donors, and others view SAFE as an ally, rather than an adversary.

Pinpoint your audience

Next, look closely at your audiences and see just who composes that “general public.” For many nonprofits, the general public remains a vast, undefined secondary audience. For an organization like yours, focused on a problem so often hidden, the general public is a primary audience. Having volunteered in domestic violence shelters, I know that it’s impossible to predict who may need your help. So you need to get the word out there quite broadly.

In addition, in order to meet your communications goals, I’d suggest targeting the following audiences, who can serve as intermediaries:

  • Caregivers: Social service agencies, the medical community;
  • Clergy and teachers: School and religious institution staff;
  • Legal: Police, the judiciary;
  • Children’s and family-oriented organizations: Church groups, Girl and Boy Scouts;
  • Community organizations: Library, civic clubs;
  • Press.

Also, for realization of your policy goals, you’ll want to reach legislators at all levels.

Hone your communications messages

When you’re talking with audiences who don’t recognize that your issue IS an issue, or those who actively recoil from it, it’s critical to put yourself in their shoes and get to know their point of view. That’s the only way you’ll create messages that they’ll relate to, emotionally and rationally.

Start by creating a profile of your target audiences, including their attitudes, beliefs, habits, and interests. If you can, attach the profiles to people you really know, to reinforce your understanding.

Next, create a set of core messages that concisely convey what you do, what its importance is, and what you want your audiences to do about it – in a way that your audiences will hear. I don’t know enough about your community to know everything that’s important to citizens there, but I know that linking your work to the following benefits will have a positive impact:

  • Healthy and happy families;
  • Reduced drain and expense on social service agencies and the judicial system;
  • Overall stronger community.

These are benefits everyone has to appreciate, Cheryl, and you can probably list many more generated by your work. These benefits should be at the core of your messages and communications.

Let your intermediaries promote your communications

Now that you have your messages, honed to reach the audiences you need to reach, how do you get the word out?

Cheryl, we don’t have room for a complete strategy here. But let me suggest the following approach, in addition to your existing communications program:

Because you’re working with difficult and sensitive issues, and are striving to build a positive reputation for SAFE, it makes sense to enlist intermediaries (whom you train) such as those listed above, to get the word out. These intermediaries, from physicians to the clergy and Girl Scout leaders, already have relationships with your audiences, are trusted, and are likely to be heard far better than direct communication or education from SAFE.

Nothing is better than conversations on difficult issues because conversations can adapt to attitudes that emerge. Printed materials don’t offer that flexibility but ensure that you are getting your messages out, broadly, in the way in which you feel most comfortable.

I’d suggest running training sessions for your intermediaries to ensure that they are clear on what domestic violence is, how to know if someone you know is being abused, and what the services are that SAFE and other organizations provide to those in trouble.

These folks are the best “distributors” of your messages and printed materials. Of course you have to ensure that your intermediaries carry your messages out to your audiences, rather than their own. In addition, I’d ask these intermediaries to talk about domestic violence and SAFE in their own communications, such as newsletters.

And of course, Cheryl, you should continue to produce your own public education materials and do some direct communications yourselves via mail, email, your web site, postering, and other vehicles.

You’ll find former victims and abusers to be powerful spokespeople. Again, when SAFE steps backstage, letting others talk about the work it does and the issue of domestic violence, you’ll be “un-demonized.” This approach offers the opportunity to situate domestic violence services as a means of strengthening the community.

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