Lessons Learned

The Palm Center’s experience shows that public support for LGBTQ equality can be expanded using counterintuitive strategies that are frequently neglected in conventional approaches to research, advocacy, and communications. The lessons we’ve learned, involving the repeated use of research and data to counter false claims and establish validated, factual narratives in their place, suggest that elements of our approach may be relevant for other issues such as reproductive rights, gun safety, racial justice, court reform, and ongoing LGBTQ equality challenges, to name a few. How and whether a given tactic may apply to other social justice efforts will, of course, depend on many variables.

Below are three key lessons learned that we think may be helpful to those seeking to inform public opinion and shape policy as part of an effort to advance social justice:

Lesson 1: It’s often necessary to challenge the frames and claims of  those who oppose equality on their terms and turf. The conventional messaging rule that advocates should never repeat their opponent’s argument is often mistaken. Our experience is that it can be crucial to suck the oxygen out of false claims by articulating and countering them. When we began our work in 1998, LGBTQ advocates were trying to reframe the national conversation about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in terms of fairness and equality. We believed, however, that it was important to use the military’s frame (unit cohesion and readiness), which is why we spent 24 years studying and communicating about military bans through that lens. Contrary to the conventional emphasis on reframing national policy debates and avoiding opposition frames, we found that what’s needed is to leverage existing frames to inform public and leadership opinion about fabrications that prop up harmful policies.

Lesson 2: Time and again, we were told that the public cares about human stories, not hard data. We found, however, that facts matter, but they must be deployed in strategic ways to be effective at advancing public and political support for a cause. Use of scholarship is a key part of this deployment strategy because data can drive media coverage, and inform government and military officials and other decision-makers, especially on issues that may seem stale. Contrary to the belief that research and facts don’t drive public persuasion, it’s possible to leverage scholarship as the basis of aggressive media campaigns designed to drive a national media narrative over time to garner public and political support.

Lesson 3: Long-term planning, patience, and perseverance are essential to persuade the public and to earn and maintain stakeholder  support, but our experience convinced us that an even more radical understanding of message discipline and repetition was necessary. To truly inform the national conversation about controversial positions (such as the notion that immigration strengthens the country) may require advocates to say the same thing, year after year, decade after decade. An important model is advertising, where an iterative, long-haul process is what binds people to products or ideas. Our experience taught us that formulating a long-term messaging and funding plan that outlasts individual electoral cycles can be critical to informing public opinion about big ideas.