Going Beyond Resonance: How Social Change Advocates Can Craft Messages That Work

Resonance: It’s the latest buzzword in strategic communications. But what does it really mean, and what is its role in effective advocacy messaging? Messages that resonate connect with people on an emotional level. Today’s communications professionals prize resonance as a sign that their messages are “working”—that they are provoking an emotional and memorable response in their target audiences.

At the FrameWorks Institute, we define messages that “work” in a different way.

When we say a message “works,” we mean that it helps people understand complex social problems and their solutions and motivates them to engage with issues in productive ways. We mean that it changes people’s attitudes about pressing social issues, makes them believe in their importance, and builds their support for solutions. Messages that work engage people; they drive them to take action and demand social change.

Resonance can certainly help advocates achieve these goals. But it’s no guarantee. There are messages that resonate that actually work against these goals—resonance can backfire. If we choose resonance as our desired communications outcome, we can end up with messages that resonate on an emotional level but detract on a strategic one—and take us further from goals like shifting the debate on immigration reform, supporting children facing adversity, or backing efforts to build support for systemic policies to address climate change.

Instead of thinking of resonance as a goal, advocates should think of it as a “mediating variable”—something that, in the vernacular of experimental research, helps explain the relationship between dependent and independent framing variables. In the context of strategic communications, resonance might help explain why a message works to achieve our goals, but it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal we seek. If want to create engagement on an issue, we should make that the outcome against which we measure message effectiveness. If we want to boost support for policy, we should use policy support as our message-testing yardstick. If we want to increase issue engagement, we need to find ways to test the ability of messages to build issue salience and engagement. If we choose resonance as an outcome, on the other hand, we will never know if our messages actually “work.”

If, for example, we choose resonance as a goal when developing communications about early childhood development, we might craft messages that focus on the role of parents. The American public sees parents as the most important part of a child’s life—by far. They believe that parents—to the exclusion of almost everyone and everything else—determine how children develop and turn out. This way of thinking is not wrong; parents, of course, do have a huge influence on their children, and building a communications strategy around this belief would surely resonate with the public.

But it doesn’t support thinking about the societal factors that determine children’s outcomes, such as good nutrition, high-quality health care, safe and stable housing, stimulating early education, and enriching interactions between young children and their caregivers. As a result, a campaign to increase structural supports for parents would likely fail if it were built around messages that focused narrowly or exclusively on the family—even though they might resonate with the public.

Our research shows that what we call Family Bubble framing causes people to place responsibility for children’s outcomes on parents, blame them for negative outcomes, and think of effective solutions as only those that narrowly target individual parents. What’s more, messages that activate the Family Bubble blind people to the societal and structural factors that directly and indirectly influence child wellbeing.

Moreover, focusing on parents privatizes child development by framing it within the family’s provenance. When people see responsibility for children’s development as within the family domain, they are less likely to support government programs and services that work in this area. Messages that trigger Family Bubble thinking can even cause people to become resistant to calls for better government supports, which are seen as incursions into the family sphere of rights and responsibilities.

Our research on framing education offers another example. When people are asked to think about what determines educational quality, the overwhelming answer is teachers. And when asked about what makes a good teacher, the clear answer is teachers who care about their students. If we choose resonance as our goal, we would create messages about education reform that focus on the need for caring teachers. The problem is the direction that this resonance takes once it begins to resonate. In this case, focusing on caring teachers narrows the focus to only those policies that involve teachers; other initiatives seem misguided, as if they are missing the point.

In addition, when people define teacher competence as his or her innate caring for students and “love for learning,” the many other factors that influence teacher effectiveness, such as training, support, and resources, fade out and don’t matter. Moreover, the public sees a clear solution to education reform when thinking this way: fire teachers who don’t care about their students and hire those who do. The fire-and-hire approach becomes a silver bullet in the debate over education reform. Messages that cue these ways of thinking—a narrow emphasis on teachers and a focus on caring—run counter to the goals of those working to improve our education system.

When advocates confuse resonance with our ultimate goals—with what really matters—we open ourselves up to danger. We do need messages to resonate. But resonance must align with our strategic goals. Otherwise, our messages won’t work for us—and they may even work against us.

Posted on June 16, 2017

Nat Kendall-Taylor
Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, is chief executive officer at the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, DC. As CEO, he leads a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists and communications practitioners who investigate ways to apply innovative framing research methods to social issues and train nonprofit organizations to put the findings into practice. An expert in psychological anthropology and communications science, Nat publishes widely in the popular and professional press and lectures frequently in the United States and abroad. His work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Science Communication, Human Organization, Applied Communications Research, Child Abuse and Neglect, and the Annals of Anthropological Practice. He is also a visiting professor at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine and a fellow at the British-American Project.