Presented by John Russonello
April 15, 2005
I'm not going to thank Joel Bradshaw for that over the top introduction because he broke the golden rule of consulting, and that is: never raise expectations. Joel, that was too much. Thanks to Cormac Flynn and all of you for inviting me to talk with you today.
I will talk about three things:
First, the Presidential election of 2004, what it means and what it does not mean;
Second, the importance of communicating values;
Third, where I see the environmental movement is headed and what both the election and values communication means for your work.
Some quick points:
It's true that the election continued a 20 year trend of gains in identification with the Republican party. And that John Kerry lost the race in any number of ways. One key was how poorly he did among married women — losing them by 11 points. Al Gore held Bush virtually even among married women, losing them by a single point. Kerry also earned the lowest Hispanic vote — 53% - of any Democratic candidate in 30 years.
A positive note is the record numbers of young people that turned out to register and vote. Kerry got most of them. But this was offset by the GOP work to increase the vote among older Americans and conservatives.
The bottom line on the election is: don't get discouraged, the election was not a refutation of your issues. Majorities of Americans continue to want:
In Presidential elections, people do not vote their self-interest as much as they vote their identity. Kerry did not lose the election because of an issue or a set of issues. He lost because he did not connect with voters as someone they had confidence in to lead the nation.
In presidential campaigns, issues play primarily to explain character and identity. To those who think it is all about issues, I ask: why did one out of every three voters who call themselves pro-choice vote for President Bush?
If it is political death to take a stand contrary to public opinion on the leading national issue, why did all seven Senators who voted against the resolution allowing the President to go to war win their reelections?
This is a time of great opportunity for progressives, including those who care about the environment. It is a time to attract many more active members and to push the country's growing environmentalism. If John Kerry had been elected, there would be less urgency to your cause.
This leads to the question of how best to make progress … My answer is… by communicating values.
We hear a lot about the term values lately, so first let me make some distinctions.
When I use the term values I am not referring to the way you heard the word used in the Presidential campaign. We studied what voters meant by the word values in the last Presidential election and concluded the word is a placeholder for which candidate they personally identify with.
The day after the election, we went into the field with a statewide poll in Ohio and asked those who had voted: “What was the most important thing that told you Bush/Kerry shares your values?” The results were quite different for the two candidates:
Many Republicans identified with Bush because they felt a moral kinship with him as Christian conservatives, just as many Democrats identified with Kerry because he represented secular liberalism to them.
Another word you hear a great deal when people mention values is framing. Framing is a worthy communications tool that refers to the snapshot that people have in their heads when you mention an issue. It is the frame that presents an issue to people. HMOs are seen as cold institutions, with lines to see doctors who encourage drive-by medicine. That's why you see ads for HMOs trying to change the frame — warm and fuzzy doctor-patient meetings. Personal insurance companies try to counter their image as large, bureaucratic, impersonal institutions. Their ads say: Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there; Allstate, the Good Hands people.
George Lakeoff writes about changing the frame from “tax burden” to “taxes as investment.” Good luck.
Framing is important and valuable, as it describes the picture that people carry around with them that will shape their opinions.
Think of the environment, if the frame for the endangered species act is the snail darter, spotted owl, or kangaroo rat, the public's snapshot is frivolous and annoying. If it is a habitat that people recognize as beautiful or useful, the snapshot provokes a different response.
When I talk about values, I am talking about something different than framing, Values are the deep core beliefs and motivations that underlie the picture. I am talking about finding out why, deep down in the hearts and minds of people, is habitat important? Why are the snail darter and spotted owl less valuable to people?
Both frames and values are important, but different. For your communications work, you need to consider values in this deeper context.
Borrowing from the work of ethicist Rushworth Kidder and others, we start from the premise that values are core beliefs that underlie all of our behavior and attitudes.
They have three qualities: 1) They are held by all of us — everyone has them. 2) They are limited in number. 3) And they are not changeable.
Every person places values in their own hierarchy, but our study of values over the last five decades has led us to conclude that some values are consistently stronger motivators than others, so we describe them in two tiers: primary and secondary values.
Primary values are:
Secondary values are:
As you know, values often conflict — that's why in polling sometimes it seems people give conflicting opinions. In order to make sense of conflicting opinions, you must go to values. Our work on the death penalty years ago revealed that when the question is about abolition of the death penalty, the responsibility to keep self and family safe outweighs the evidence that the death penalty is unfair.
But if the issue becomes a moratorium until the problems of administrating the death penalty are resolved, fairness takes a more dominant position.
Environmentalists often find themselves appealing to the stewardship value while the other side plays to freedom and family security. This is not a position you want to be in.
You need to turn the tables and show how the other side threatens values of family security and quality of life, personal freedom, and living up to the American standard of personal responsibility.
The side that finds the primary values motivating opinions on an issue - and communicates them first — usually wins. The Senate Democrats tried to torpedo the homeland security department by saying it would be unfair to its employees. If they could not make a case that the department would not make us safer — a case I thought they could have made — then save the effort.
Values-based communications does not mean compromising your beliefs, it means respecting the values of your audience and finding areas of commonality — where do your values and those of your audience intersect.
We tell our progressive clients:
It's not about cutting defense, it's about making us safer.
It's not about gay marriage, it's about discrimination against people.
Voting Rights is not about gaining political clout for blacks and Hispanics — it's about ensuring equal representation for all Americans.
It's not about stopping global warming of the earth — it's about cleaning up pollution that threatens your family's health.
It's not about doing away with roads in wilderness areas — it's about restoring public lands for everyone to enjoy.
It's not about telling people to drive less — it's about having the choice of different ways to get to work.
It's not about taking way your freedom to do whatever you want with your land or your ATV — it's about protecting our well-being and the land that belongs to all of us from the irresponsible behavior of a few.
Besides focusing on values, it is necessary to be clear about the goal of your communications.
- Is it to make a point, regardless of how it is perceived?
- Or, is it to win a battle of persuasion — convince a city council or the Congress to move in a specific policy direction?
- Or, is it to change behavior in some way?
We recently went to Portland, Oregon to help strengthen the message to save the salmon and the rivers.
We started from the premise — don't defend why we need to save the salmon. Refuse to be put in that position. Instead, the debate must be about making the federal government defend the existence of four obsolete, inefficient dams that are limiting the Pacific Northwest's ability to maintain stable jobs, good fishing, nice recreation areas, and a healthy salmon population.
This leads to my final topic — the future of the environmental movement. You have many hurdles to jump, but the highest hurdle is self-doubt.
There is too much self-doubt right now in the environmental community.
The director of a nationwide environmental organization recently asked me to answer four questions at an upcoming conference:
Let's take these one at a time. First, the environmental side is not losing all the policy battles. You are doing pretty well, considering that you are operating at a time when, for a variety of reasons, all three branches of government are controlled by a political party that represents big business, oil, military and security contractors and organized Christian religions. If you don't fit into one of those categories, you either will receive no attention from the government in Washington, or you will wish you had received no attention.
At a time when progressive causes have all been on the defensive, environmentalists have frequently taken the offensive — and won.
In 1994, Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act — the largest wilderness bill ever in the lower 48 states — preserving 7.7 million acres of wilderness.
In the last five years, we have seen hundreds of smart growth initiatives adopted by states and local communities making real progress -- from a New Jersey bond initiative to protect open space, to Floridians voting to plan for mass transit, limitations on development of the foothills outside of Boise, and many more.
More recently, while the country was reelecting Bush, the folks in the Rocky Mountain West were being heard in the west wing — the place not the television program. Enough hunters and anglers voiced opposition to random drilling in the Rocky Mountain Front that the Administration of, by, and for Halliburton decided to roll back the plan.
Six years ago, South Dakotans said “no” to factory farms and hog waste, and two years ago a local citizens group organized against a multi-million dollar effort by corporate farms to repeal the ban — outspent four to one, the South Dakotans turned back an effort that would have repealed the ban.
As I travel consulting for environmental groups in every region of our country, I can tell you the locals are not backing down on their agendas - and they are making progress.
When environmental priorities have been short-changed, it has been because your national leadership has relied on politics and maneuvering rather than taking a values message to the public. You have failed when you have relied on politicians because they are from a generally friendly political party instead of reaching out to build a diverse coalition of voters from across the political and cultural landscape. When I hear some of you say, Senator so and so consistently leaves us on key votes, but we endorse him because the alternative would be worse. I tell them — put up a primary candidate against Senator Go Along.
This brings us to the question: Has environmentalism become a special interest? Well, we conduct focus groups around the country, it is easy to observe that the term “special interest” has lost its meaning. Americans are telling us — every one of us is a special interest of one type or another.
It is also true that environmental groups do suffer from an image of being ideological. The word “environmental” connotes someone who comes to the issue of clean air, clean water, or habitat protection from an ideological, not a practical direction — someone who believes in the idea of saving everything, rather than valuing a particular place because it is important to a community.
Gallup polls have shown a steady decline in the proportion of Americans who identify with the moniker environmentalist, from 78% in 1990 to 47% in 2000.
On the positive side, most people also believe that enviros do a lot of good by bringing to light problems that government and industry would otherwise hide — from Woburn, Massachusetts to Anniston, Alabama.
Like plaintiffs lawyers, you serve a purpose, but most people are not interested in having you to dinner.
On the third question of public engagement, it is different TODAY than thirty years ago. Now engagement is easier and more sophisticated. The public is more skeptical and more educated. We've gone beyond the crying Indian… to Meryl Streep washing apples before she feeds them to her kids.
The biggest difference is that today, public engagement does not mean being part of a “movement,” which has political identification overtones. Instead engagement today is described more accurately as taking an active interest around specific local — and less often national — issues.
The public is willing to be engaged at some level, or we would not have the victories we just mentioned. Americans hear a lot about problems. They need to hear more from you about solutions. You must give them something to be for.
Question number four: Have enviros lost the values debate? You have yet to begin fighting the values debate in earnest.
The job of environmentalists is not to change values but to find common ground and demonstrate that environmentalism is consistent with American values. In the end, Americans share values that are more in line with environmentalism than with those who oppose environmental protection, but this is lost when enviros try to impose specific values schemes on others.
Environmentalism has gone through the life cycle of a social movement: from the wonder and fragility of infancy, to the boldness of adolescence, to productive adulthood. Now, we may be experiencing the midlife crisis of environmentalism.
The movement has changed from a small group of fiercely committed disciples to a number of very large organizations with mailing lists and merchandise catalogues and vacation packages for the whole family — and those vacations don't include chaining yourself to the fence outside Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.
The environmental groups have been so successful in spreading the gospel of environmentalism, it is now being recited by many who profess to believe but whose faith is not very deep and who do not practice their environmentalism in their lives.
Like people who profess to be pro-choice and pro-civil rights — the lay environmentalists believe in the idea but don't agree with all applications of the idea.
This suggests the next challenge is to move beyond the label of environmentalism or even protecting the environment, to communicate about specific examples of the values that you have in common with your audience. It may be about responsibility, security, fair play, or the health of your family.
It is no longer enough to be pro-environment — the presidents of Exxon and Halliburton say there are pro-environment.
You now have to work to present each of your issues from a values perspective in a way that your audience will hear it and respond. The environmental movement has not lost its purpose — it just needs to mature its approach.
We've begun to roll up some victories in Montana because we have held up a mirror to the environmental community to show enviros that they have shared values with those people in pick-up trucks who have been threatening their lives — both groups want the same Montana, one that remains clean and natural, and in which Montanans have the final say.
As you go about your work, there are four ideas that will point the way to success:
I realize that you feel like you are working against a stiff wind of opposition blowing from Washington. But with hard work, the courage to do things differently, and a little luck, you can reverse those winds and change the future.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.