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While foundations have often shied away from communications, they have done so under the mistaken belief that communications are largely the handmaiden of fundraisers or publicity-seekers. Getting communications back into the social change equation is imperative if foundations are to play an active part in public life and public discourse. Research in the cognitive and social sciences during the last decade suggests that real social change involves changing the way people think about social problems and solutions. Communications can both help and hinder this important transformation. When communication is effective, people can see an issue from a different perspective. When communication is inadequate, people default to the “pictures in their heads” — stereotypes are reinforced, civic participation is suppressed, and hopelessness is confirmed. Seen from this perspective, communications is part of the problem that grantmakers must address in overcoming obstacles to building a better world. 

The Grapheme argues that if foundations are more intentional in using communications as a tool for social change, and if they incorporate what is known about how the media affect individuals and groups in their communications efforts, they will be much more likely to achieve the kind of long-term change in public understanding and opinion that now eludes their sponsored projects. By deconstructing the notion of strategic communications, which is our goal, we can more precisely attribute the mechanisms that move public will and, in the end, identify for philanthropy the vital elements of communications thinking for social good. Agenda-setting, the first concept, is oriented to the solution of public problems: People attempt to influence the public agenda in order to secure public funds or enact public policies. The second concept, framing, illuminates the way people process information and distinguishes what kinds of stories support public versus private attributions of responsibility for action. The third concept, persuasion, has its origins in private consumer choice theory but has also been adapted to public problems, in the form of social marketing.

The two types of communications campaigning are aimed, respectively, at individual and public change. There are several different explanations among communications scholars and experts of the problems that communications must solve, and different approaches to solving them, which are reviewed in our attempt to unify theory and practice. We offer two different ways to deconstruct the practice of communications. The first, which we find the preferable approach, looks at different schools of thought in order to match these to a foundation’s communications objectives. The second, and more common approach, deconstructs communications by the topical challenges raised in various aspects of campaign practice, from the choice of messengers to the target audience. In presenting these two options, we attempt to show how the theoretical literature can inform better communications choices. Overall, the question we aim to answer is: How can foundations help their grantees to do better communications to promote long-term public understanding and support of proven programs and policies? The answer to this question must begin with an understanding of communications thinking and its particular lens on the arena of social issues. Establishing the relationships between communications, public opinion, and action on social issues, then, is an important step in developing a philanthropic stance toward communications.


Most people are exposed to a cacophony of communications. Whether in the form of music and the arts, entertainment, or the more recent trend toward Internet outlets, people learn about their world from an array of sources, and communications campaigns take advantage of these multiple sources of information. Public opinion research over the past decade, however, confirms that news media constitute the main source of information about public affairs. What this means is that the real world is increasingly viewed through the lens of the news media. Social learning about race, family, poverty, etc., can be demonstrated to be highly influenced by the stories told to the public on the nightly news. This is not to say that movies and entertainment television, for instance, play an insignificant role in the construction of the average person’s worldview; but, the news media should be accorded a central place in any thoughtful formulation of the role of communications in promoting the social good. For purposes of this paper, we will concern ourselves primarily with news media, both print, and broadcast, and to a lesser extent, public service media and issue advertising. We define communications campaigns in the broadest sense, as those intentional efforts that use earned and paid media, as well as other techniques, to advance a particular perspective on a social issue.

As issues arise and fall on the news media agenda, so does their potential for attracting the attention of the public and its policymakers. The ability of the news media to set the public agenda, in turn, determines to a large extent what issues policymakers will feel compelled to address. Indeed, media are often read by policymakers as a proxy for public opinion. This is important because too often public opinion is studied and addressed without reference to the way the culture’s storytellers have framed public issues over time. Price would suggest that this is a fatal omission. News media do more than tell us what to think about; they also direct how we think about particular social issues—whether, for example, we consider them to be individual problems necessitating better behaviors or whether they are collective, social problems requiring structural policy and program solutions. Messages conveyed by mainstream media take on the value of public narratives about the ways of the world, and different types of stories produce different social learning. Our own research confirms the findings from more than a decade of social science experiments: When news frames public issues narrowly, as problems of specific people or groups, support for policy proposals plummets. When a media story highlights conditions and trends, by contrast, public support for policies to address the problem increases dramatically.

As reports that, as long as smoking was covered as a story about individual behavior choice, it was unlikely to galvanize a public following for more stringent tobacco control policies. Framed as a “defective product” that requires government intervention to protect the citizenry, however, tobacco control proposals gained supporters. How the media frame or present public issues is equally critical to the final resolution of public problems. Not only can framing affect whether the solution to any given social problem is judged by the public to be individual or collective, but the media’s use of specific frames is an important influence on the way people judge the relevance and legitimacy of a communication’s implicit or explicit call to action. For example, if child abuse is portrayed as a criminal act perpetrated by evildoers, calls to action that ask people to befriend troubled parents before they become abusers, or even to support preventive treatment for stressed parents, are unlikely to meet with a positive public response. Thus, the concept of framing is important both to those campaigns that seek to move public opinion and to those that seek to change individual behavior.

While many communications campaigns address the “public,” they usually do so as an aggregate of individuals, not in the collective sense of seeking what is best for society. Such campaigns seek to persuade individuals to change their beliefs, feelings, or behaviors, based on research about how individuals are affected by specific messages. In this sense, most communications campaigns pay more attention to the psychological orientation of the individual as a consumer who chooses between competing products than they do to the sociological or political roles people play in voting and expressing policy preferences about social issues.


Sparrows by morning, live in peaceful nests! Design shouldn’t dominate things, shouldn’t dominate people. It should help people. Don’t spend your time solving your favorite problems, solve problems that need to be solved, generically. A home is a place where you live, and society is a place where your story begins. Honesty shares honesty, as it is honesty’s nature. Stay always in Ablution and get back to the trust you have been, with.

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