Communicating Complex Policy Ideas in a Busy World

It can be difficult for public policy organizations to stand out in our busy communications landscape. People have access to more content than ever before. Often, many policy organizations are trying to reach the same small set of overwhelmed people.

How do you achieve your goals in this crowded, noisy, competitive environment? Can you reach your organizational objectives without spending massive amounts of money? Here are a few key ways that you can increase the chances of getting your organization’s work to the people that matter most.

Set Good Goals

First, you need to set goals. These need to be much more specific and concrete than most organizations initially understand. If you set overly-vague goals—the most common mistake—you set yourself further from success.

Goals need to be able to be quantified, timed, measured, and worth the effort. They also need to be achievable—your organization needs to be able to pull them off. Setting too lofty a goal, no matter how well defined, will waste your organization’s time and resources.

Here is a properly-formulated goal: “be cited in regulation that limits or repeals certificate of need laws for hospitals and clinics in four states by 2024.” It contains a timeline, has measurable outcomes, is impactful (trust me, certificate of needs laws are pretty bad), and within the organization’s capabilities (the number of states could be increased or decreased as appropriate).

The goal “increase awareness of the problems with public sport stadium funding” has none of those traits. Such an ill-defined goal invites ill-targeted activities—to the detriment of your organization’s effectiveness.

Understand Your Audiences

The main audience for this article—organizations that conduct research to inform public policy—are only one party in a bustling process. Obviously, your organization can’t cite itself in legislation that it wrote and passed into law on its own. You need to get other people and organizations involved.

You clearly need policymakers, but you may also need research organizations, think tanks, trade groups, businesses, legislative committees, regulatory bodies, and others. All play a role in improving policy, and they have different needs from your organization to do that. Your organization’s messaging and materials need to be tailored specifically to each.

To get started, answer two questions for each audience:

  • What information do they need to take the desired action?
  • Is your information in a format that this audience is likely to consume and internalize?  

The first answer will help you organize which materials you need to communicate. It will also help you identify gaps to fill with additional research and external materials, which may then inform and improve the goals that you set.

The second question requires some research, which I cover later in more detail. But the format of the material is just as important to these busy, distracted audiences as the content. When you are trying to convince or educate someone on a complex policy issue, you need to do it in the manner and medium your audience prefers. This will almost certainly require many versions of the same materials. 

Identify Headwinds (and Tailwinds)

Public policy audiences are small, busy, and highly sought-after, and many of these people work on multiple issues besides yours. At the same time, other groups may be actively trying to communicate the same issues as your organization to the very same people. This isn’t always a bad thing—the other groups may be pushing for the same type of reform or change.

Whether other groups are pushing in the same direction as your organization or not, you need to be aware of their efforts and plan accordingly. You can reach out and team up with like-minded groups to amplify your efforts, or you can identify, track, and engage accordingly with countervailing efforts. It’s crucial to understand that you are very rarely alone, and these other players will impact your efforts.

Research, Survey, or Just Copy Someone Else

Similarly, you are rarely the first organization to work on a particular topic or policy. It’s helpful to understand past efforts from other groups, where particular policies originated, and past efforts’ successes and failures.

Admittedly, it’s difficult data to collect, but it’s worth it. This can save your organization from going down the same dead-end road someone else tried, or it can provide past examples to emulate or synthesize with your work.

Specifically, look for types of content, channels used (social media, blogs, email, etc.), tone and tenor, frequency, and the scale of the efforts. All of these will help in crafting your materials and setting realistic expectations for metrics and progress.

Set an Editorial Calendar (and Stick to it)

Now that you have your goals, audiences, landscape, and history, it’s time to plan how your communications effort fits with your organization’s activities.

The simplest way to get started is to craft a calendar with all information at your disposal. Start with events that your organization does not control, like legislative events, holidays, and other external factors.  You can create a framework to start slotting in the materials and efforts needed to meet the goals of the project within the planned timeline.

The first items that you put into the calendar should be internal long-lead-time efforts, like internal research release dates, in-person events, and targeted media opportunities. After those are in, marketing and ancillary materials will become easier to schedule effectively. The calendar can also contain scheduled series for a blog or social media postings. The dates closer to the present will have higher fidelity than those a year or two away, but it will always be valuable to input items even if you aren’t sure of the exact dates.

The last step is to stick with the calendar. The most valuable outcome of this planning is that it keeps you on target, focused on achievable goals, able to identify wins, and able to measure progress.

Organized Organizations Just Do Better

Reaching and engaging your busy policy audience is difficult in the best of circumstances. The more organized and deliberate your activities are, the greater the chance of real policy impact.