Talking about poverty - time to rethink our approach?

Abigail Scott Paul says it's time for organisations like JRF to change tack in the way they communicate with the public, if we want to increase understanding of the need to solve poverty.

Those of us working in communications to raise awareness of the impact of poverty in the UK have tended to use a variety of tactics in our communication strategies: myth-busting, case studies, audience segmentation, and message repetition, for example. Each one shares a common trait: they are designed to try and get people to think the way we do about an issue.

But are these really the best approaches to building public understanding and initiating action? Political and public attitudes towards people in poverty are at least as hard as ever and the poverty rate has remained pretty much unchanged for most of the past 25 years. Despite our best efforts, something in our communications is not working.

‘Poverty’ as a word itself and concept is problematic. In fact it can be a barrier in attempts to build public and political support for the need to tackle it. When talking about this issue, it is not unusual to get the following reactions:

  • ‘Real’ poverty does not exist in the UK; it is something that happens overseas in Africa.
  • Poverty is inevitable; there are always going to be those at the top and those at the bottom.
  • Poverty isn’t really an issue because even those people who experience it do not identify as being ‘poor’.
  • Most people who are poor are poor because they don’t try hard enough to get themselves out of poverty – these people don't deserve our support.

Attempts to correct these understandings with evidence, myth-busting, messaging and case studies have not led to increased public support for poverty. In fact, our recent work with FullFact shows that as we try to address these views head on, media reporting on poverty in the UK becomes more confused and distorted. This in turn leads to a politically divisive debate about the causes, measures, consequences and solutions to reduce it, and distracts from the discussion about long-term changes and solutions.

There is acknowledgement in our sector that we are failing to win the public argument. The Webb Memorial Trust, Oxfam and Shelter ran a conference earlier this month, which set out the challenge. There, Deborah Mattinson from Britain Thinks told us bluntly: “You need to start where the public are at; don’t think you will get them to think the way you do about an issue.”

We are therefore working with FrameWorks Institute to develop a new way to talk about poverty in the UK. They have a long history of working with social movements and campaigners to reframe complex social issues.

In the US, they have been part of a successful effort to change the debate around early childhood development through the development of various metaphors. The metaphor of ‘toxic stress’ has helped structure better public understanding of the issues of early adversity. It has been an important part of a larger communications strategy that has created public demand for better policies to help alleviate chronic stress in early years of childhood. In fact, the Prime Minister referred to ‘toxic stress’ in his Life Chances speech last month.

Later this year, JRF will be launching the UK’s first costed, evidence-based strategy to reduce poverty across all ages. For it to be effective, the solutions will need to come from not only Government, but from business, city leaders, regulators, service providers and communities. We, and those working to tackle poverty in the UK, need to communicate in a new way that resonates with the public, to increase understanding of the need to solve poverty so that these stakeholders are seized by the need to act. It’s time to change tack.

JRF is working with the National Children’s Bureau on the Talking about Poverty project with FrameWorks Institute.

A shorter version of this blog first appeared in PR Week - Do charities need to rethink comms tactics to have impact?