Five Tips on How Social Workers Can Frame Issues to Gain Public Support

Background article covers how to be a social worker, how to become a social worker, what social work requirements are involved, and so on:

By Michelle Bussolotti

Ever pull your hair out trying to gain support from the public on vital social work issues? Maybe you are working with legislators, school boards, the medical community, or any number of professionals or citizens social workers engage with daily. Are you going crazy because you put together a very thorough argument with all the facts and figures and still, your audience is not, "getting it"? Guess what, you can talk numbers until you're blue in the face and still not garner the support you need. Why? Simply stating the facts and figures will not penetrate the human value and belief system that governs behavior. Furthermore, people think in terms of imagery and need more than facts to create a sense to take action. Envelope your facts with any of the tips below, and you're likely to dramatically increase support for your social work causes.

1.) Use Values
As social workers, we know values pilot human behavior, so why not use this knowledge to enact support for the causes we care about? Often times it is hard and time consuming to generate a value system where there is not one or where one is very weak. The solution? Tap into a pre-existing value system! It's much less energy and extremely effective! For instance, a very deeply rooted American value is the concept of "freedom." Use it! Here is an example of where social workers can use freedom to generate support a cause, "In the United States, we should have to freedom to choose our partner. No matter how you feel about same sex marriage, the freedom to choose your partner is a right all Americans should have." Whether you're a Democrat or Republican, anytime the words, "Freedom, Liberty, or Justice" is used in an argument, the statement becomes almost unpatriotic to refute. As a social worker, use these values to your advantage!

Furthermore, behavior based on values is so strong that people will actually support causes that are not in their best interest if the cause is securely packaged in a message that strongly speaks to their values. Think about how many policies the Bush administration implemented that were blatantly in the interest of the elite, yet still garnered the support of the general public. Bush's speeches were often peppered with the words "freedom" and "liberty" and this sort of framing was extremely effective with gaining support. People admitted knowing the policies were not in their own personal best interest, but supported the administration for the values they were reportedly founded on.

2.) Use Metaphors
As social workers, we often times deal with many complex issues. I'm sure all of us feel our issues are too important to say just a few words about, or that it is impossible to communicate the entirety of a social problem in just a sound bite. Guess what? We are going to have to learn how to do so. The media has perfected this skill and they are very effective with using it as a tool to influence the public into supporting whatever it is they desire. However, how do we take complex, important issues and encapsulate them into psychologically easy to digest sound bites? Use metaphors! For instance, I once gave a speech several years back where I likened domestic violence to "America's hidden war that places it's battlegrounds in our homes." I sprinkled facts throughout the speech like, "It's a war that will kill four to eight people today." Out of all of the things I have said throughout my career, when I Google my name, guess what quote comes-up time and time again on several websites? That's right, the one about domestic violence being America's hidden war! Talk about a way to spread a message!

3.) Put a Face on the Issue
It is incredibly important to put a face on social issues. People have a hard time turning their backs on others. This can be incredibly helpful when trying to enact legislation. I can think of countless laws that use someone's name (usually of a tragic story) pass through the house and senate with few descending votes. I talked with one of our state legislators about this and he said simply that he would feel like a "jerk" if he voted against the bill.

Putting a face on an issue is powerful for garnering public support or for fundraising. If it is ethical, stories about children often move people the most. People often have more sympathy for children than adults. I worked for several years in the domestic violence field and it was often most effective to frame our services through the eyes of the children in our program.

Packaging a story with a face and values packs an extra punch. For instance, many of our homeless citizens are our veterans. What about framing homelessness as saying, "It is unacceptable that our vets who have served our country are left out in the cold. We must be there for them, as they have been there for us." Maybe you're thinking, but wait a minute...there are other homeless people too! Not just vets! Remember your goal. Your goal is to garner support for those who are homeless. To do so, you must put a face to the problem and interweave it with values. Here, I just used patriotism. Again, another very deep rooted American value that is likely to be effective to garner support.

Think about it. The Reagan administration was very effective with using imagery to denigrate those who received welfare. Contrary to the facts about recipients, the administration effectively painted an image of a lazy women (usually of color), milking "the system", who didn't want to work and kept having children to stay on welfare and "live high off the hog". It didn't matter that the facts were essentially the opposite of the image being portrayed, people responded to the image and this tactic was so effective that it eventually lead to support for welfare reform in 1996. What is amazing is once an image is "real" in someone's head, they don't even ask for the facts and often times refute any that come their way! Remember, a face to a social problem matters!

4.) Wording is Everything
Try to frame your issues positively and use wording that keeps your end result in mind. Again, word issues with values. I can think of a recent case in Connecticut where legislation was passed using this tactic. It was for getting emergency contraceptives into the ER in Catholic hospitals for rape victims, as victims were being denied access due to the value system of the hospital to not dispense emergency birth control. The first time the legislation was introduced it was called, "EC in the ER." Cute and catchy, but not hitting value systems, so it failed. The next time the bill was introduced it was called, "Compassionate Care for Rape Victims." With such a name, it was hard for the general public or the legislature to deny support and the bill passed into law.

As social workers, we need to think carefully about our wording, keeping the language in line with the goals we hope to accomplish. Perhaps instead of using the word "poverty" for example, we can use "economic justice" more. The reason being is that when we keep saying "poverty" or "poor" we keep focusing our attention on people within that domain and pinpoint that population as the catalyst for change. Shifting the language to "economic justice" changes our focus and promotes the responsibility of all citizens to bring about social change. Not only that, our "goal" isn't poverty, it's economic justice...just a thought.

Another point on wording -do not use your opponents' wording or you are helping them-out by reinforcing their message. For example: If you are working on securing same-sex marriage equality and they say, "Gay marriage destroys families." Do not say, "Gay marriage doesn't destroy families." The public will not hear the "doesn't", they will only hear "Gay marriage destroys families." Instead, when responding, change the language and have your supporters do the same...every time. For example, "Same-sex marriage equality strengthens families."

5.) Repeat, repeat, repeat!
The media would not spend billions of dollars per year on advertising the same commercials over and over again if repeating messages didn't work. It does! Unfortunately, in the social work field, we often times lack consistency and frequency of our messages. So, here's the agenda. Using all the tips in this article, format three different messages: 1.) The Story, 2.) The Summary, and 3.) The Title. The story is a message where you have a few minutes to talk, the summary, maybe just a minute, and the title, just a sound bite of time. Repeat these messages in different venues, the radio, newspapers, press conferences, public hearings, etc. Have your supporters repeat the same messages too. Before you know it, the public will not only be reciting these messages, but acting on them too!

Michelle C. Bussolotti, MSW, has worked in the social work field for eight years as a counselor, community educator, campaign manager, and policy/legislative analyst. She graduated with her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Eastern Connecticut State University and earned her Master's Degree in Policy Practice Social Work from the University of Connecticut. For more information on social work networking and social work jobs, please visit her website at

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