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Communications Error #3


  • Message saturation is a lengthy process. A steady, consistent stream of messaging reinforces your brand and ideas.
  • A classic case of steady-drip exposure changing public opinion and ultimately policy is the fight to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Saturating public consciousness with a single message changed conventional wisdom.
  • Generating publicity around new, iterated messaging bridges the gap between what experts know and what leaders do.

For those readers who are new to this series, I am posting monthly columns about communications lessons I learned during my decade-long involvement in the campaign to repeal ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ (DADT). Each posting focuses on an error that I made, or saw other groups make, followed by thoughts about what might have prevented the mistake. The effort to repeal DADT has been viewed as a textbook example of social justice advocacy, and public education was one component of the campaign. Hence, lessons from the repeal struggle may merit consideration by advocates working across a range of issues. That said, my experiences have been informed by just one campaign, and lessons may not be relevant in other realms. So I want to be explicit in noting that I am not claiming any across-the-board validity to my insights, and to invite readers who have a different take to let me know. For elaboration on the lessons discussed in this series, please see my e-book How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In my first column, I argued that some NGOs seem to use their communications departments to promote organizational name recognition, but few appear to pursue opportunities to leverage communications with the broader aim of shifting public consciousness, of changing the public’s mind about critical issues. (Right wing groups have been effective at this, but progressive organizations seem to lag.) I noted that in the DADT repeal struggle, advocacy groups pursued a decade-long strategy to convince the public that discrimination, not gay troops, harm the military, and that changing the public’s mind about this point was a necessary pre-condition for achieving policy change.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]“While the importance of repetition for shaping public opinion may be obvious, I am continually shocked by NGOs’s apparent failure to appreciate it.”[/pullquote1]

In my last column, I asked how, exactly, an NGO could use communications strategically to change public opinion. My answer includes a number of dimensions, but my exclusive focus was message selection. My recommendation was to identify a lie (gays hurt the military) that sustains bad policy (DADT), and then use communications to flip that lie on its head (“discrimination, not gays, hurts the military”). My point was that while changing public opinion rarely is sufficient for changing policy, progressive groups cannot expect political leaders to achieve social justice on our behalf unless we give them cover. And the only way to give them cover is to use communications to persuade the public to support progressive policies. More specifically, I suggest that the first two questions an NGO might ask are: “If we could snap our fingers and change the public’s mind about one point, what would that point be?” and “If we succeed at changing the public’s mind about that one point, would it be easier for progressive politicians to enact policy and legal change that would benefit the public?”

Now assume that an NGO has identified a message that meets these conditions. How can it use that message to change public opinion? One answer, I’ll argue in this posting, is iteration. Imagine for a moment that you are a consumer trying to decide which car to purchase, and that you have seen one Honda television advertisement in your life. Your chance of purchasing a Honda would be close to zero. The reason, of course, is that message saturation takes a lot of time to achieve, and corporations and marketing executives well understand that increasing a consumer’s likelihood of purchasing a particular brand usually requires long term exposure to a steady stream of messaging.

In my introductory course on American politics, I show the students an ingenious Youtube video to demonstrate the power of iteration for shaping public opinion. It begins with an excerpt from a speech that George W. Bush delivered in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2003. The topic of the speech is foreign policy, and the President’s rhetoric is mundane and uninteresting. It sounds like one long platitude. But then the editor of the video splices the speech, stringing similar words together. For nearly an entire minute, Bush says, “Terror, terrorist, terror, terrorism, terror, terrifying…” and on and on. He then says, “weapons of mass destruction, atomic weapons, nuclear weapons, massively destructive weapons, chemical weapons…” Then, he says “Iraq, Iraqi, Iraq, Saddam, Iraqi, Saddam Hussein, Hussein, Iraq, Saddam…” over and over again. He does the same with references to al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and September 11.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]”But there’s a big difference between something experts know and something leaders, as well as members of the public, know.”[/pullquote1]

The Bush administration never made a secret of its attempt to link these concepts in the public’s consciousness, as this was its strategy for selling its plan to attack Iraq all along. What’s striking about the video is that you can see, hidden in plain sight, how Bush references each concept—terror, Iraq, WMD, al-Qaeda, and September 11—dozens of times without appearing to do so. It took a crafty editor to remove all the clichés and empty rhetoric, and to string the references together, thus allowing the viewer to see the power of repetition at work.

While the importance of repetition for shaping public opinion may be obvious, I am continually shocked by NGOs’ apparent failure to appreciate it. Again and again, a think tank releases an outstanding report, attracts significant media attention to its findings, and then moves on to different topics.

Or if it does continue to issue studies on the same topic, it makes little if any effort, with the release of each new report, to integrate messaging in any patterned way.

It is certainly the case that a single study can have a profound effect in shaping public opinion, and Lakoff’s book (one of whose recommendations I disputed in my last column) is a terrific example. With the publication of a single book, Lakoff deepened public understanding of the importance of framing, and changed the way progressive opinion leaders think about it. But the odds are stacked against this single-shot approach. Only a tiny percent of studies attract media attention. Of those that do attract media attention, only a tiny percent influence public opinion in any meaningful, long-term way. And for the vast majority that fail to attract media attention, the possibility of influencing public opinion, with very few exceptions, is zero.

As discussed in my previous post, by the time I established my institute in 1999, Pentagon brass had succeeded in persuading the public as well as public opinion leaders that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would undermine the military. Our goal was to persuade the public that inclusive policy would help the military, and that discrimination, not gay and lesbian troops, compromised military effectiveness. While a tiny think tank like the Palm Center doesn’t have access to a bully pulpit, we did have the capacity to generate major, national media coverage three or four times per year. In each case, the goal was not to get coverage of our name, but rather to repeat our message, based on research, that discrimination is what harms the military, not gay troops. My hope was that steady-drip exposure to this message over time would have a cumulative effect in shaping the beliefs of military and civilian leaders, as well as the public at large. And it worked.

Consider the question of gay troops in foreign militaries. Scholars already knew in 1993 that numerous foreign militaries had decided to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly, and that none had suffered any overall decline in unit cohesion or readiness as a result. In fact, this was one of the conclusions of the 1993 RAND report. RAND had sent study teams to Australia, Canada, and other countries that had lifted their bans, and the researchers concluded the same thing in each case: it was a non-event.

But there’s a big difference between something experts know and something leaders, as well as members of the public, know. For more than ten years, my institute pounded away on the foreign military message, conducting study after study, and, each time, generating as much media attention as possible. Of course, RAND had already done an effective job of proving the point, which meant there was really nothing new about our research. But we needed to come up with new research so that journalists would keep covering our message.

The resulting payoff of this iterated messaging was huge, as reporters continuously used the talking point about gays in foreign militaries, even when the Palm Center did nothing to prompt them. During Senate hearings in 2010, a number of moderate Senators whose votes were critical for repeal referenced the success that foreign military forces have had in allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. I believe this was, at least in part, a reflection of our use of repeated, research-based messaging to underscore the point.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]”It is certainly the case that a single study can have a profound effect in shaping public opinion…”[/pullquote1]

Of course, the foreign military theme was just one element of a broader effort to hammer home our key message about discrimination, not gay troops, hurting the military. More specifically, we reinforced our central point by driving home the following two themes again and again: (1) discrimination is costly (creates mistrust which undermines cohesion; wastes money; wastes talent such as Arabic linguists); and (2) integration works (gays serve openly and effectively in U.S. combat arms; U.S. troops are tolerant of gay peers; foreign military integrations have been successful). The point, as always, was less about influencing scholarly opinion than the views of military and civilian leaders, as well as the public at large.

If repetition is an essential component of persuasion, it can be difficult to achieve. By definition, the goal of a repetition-based strategy is to saturate public consciousness with a single message, so much so that the message becomes conventional wisdom, or in other words stale. But why would a journalist ever want to write about an obvious message? In the mid-2000’s a New York Times reporter whose beat included DADT repeal said that he was no longer interested in new studies showing that gays and lesbians do not harm the military, because the point had become stale. How, then, can an NGO make a stale message sufficiently interesting for a reporter to cover? Please stay tuned until next month, when I will address this question in a new posting.

Aaron Belkin is a scholar, author, activist, and dancer. He has written and edited more than twenty five scholarly articles, chapters, and books, and he designed and implemented much of the public education campaign that eroded popular support for military anti-gay discrimination. After the military’s gay ban was overturned, Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley said of Belkin, “Probably no single person deserves more credit for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelkin.


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