10 tips for talking about equality

Information deficit model
How not to talk about equality.

Equally Ours’s Head of Digital and Strategic Communications, Alice Jennings, on our research project on communicating equality.

As campaigners working on disability, race, or any protected characteristic, we know that there’s a whole lot of inequality in the world. And we know that, the way things are at the moment, that’s not changing fast enough. One absolutely vital part of changing this is to start building public support for the comprehensive solutions we know are needed.

Easy, right?

It will come as no surprise that it is, in fact, not so easy to talk about equality in a way that galvanises the mass public support we need. Often the way we talk about equality doesn’t work well at all – we tell people they’re wrong, mythbust our opponents’ arguments, and focus on talking up just how bad the problem is.

We at Equally Ours wanted to understand more about why our collective messages aren’t connecting and how, using a strategic communications approach, we as campaigners can bring more of the public along with us in the fight for real, substantive equality.

Our new guide, How to shift public attitudes on equality, brings together the findings of this research with established best practice in strategic communications and reframing. You can download the talking about equality guide here, or read on for the top takeaways…

The meritocracy myth is powerful

There is a major gap between the way the general public understand inequality, and the way campaigners and those with lived experience understand it: the belief that we live in a meritocracy that is, for the most part, working pretty well.

Campaigners understand that inequality is structural – deeply embedded in our culture and institutions. The general public, by contrast, believe that things are generally a level playing field – that if we all work hard enough, we can mostly get where we want to be in life.

To put it another way, campaigners see inequality as a pervasive system that’s embedded throughout society – whereas the general public see it as a series of one-off instances of prejudice.

So as campaigners and communicators, how can we start talking about inequality in a way that furthers an understanding of it as a structural problem – and therefore increases support for structural solutions?

1. Beware the meritocracy myth

The belief that we all ‘get out what we put in’ obscures how inequality really works, and stops us addressing structural barriers. As campaigners we need to provide an alternative narrative, and be careful that the stories and values we’re using don’t accidentally entrench people’s belief in meritocracy.

2. Try talking about inequality as ‘running up down escalators’

In our research with ComRes, we tested different metaphors’ effectiveness at moving people’s understanding of inequality in a more structural direction. The most successful metaphor described an unequal society as one where some people have a mix of escalators in their path, while others have only down escalators, and constantly have to run up them to get where they want to go.

3. Start by engaging people’s compassionate values

Connecting with people’s compassionate, or ‘intrinsic’, values can help increase support for our campaigning issues, particularly among people who might not be pre-disposed to agree with us in the first place. Be careful with the value of ‘fairness’ though – this is often co-opted to reinforce the meritocracy myth.

4. Stay away from selfish values

Centring our comms on ‘extrinsic’ values like wealth and social status, even if it might be helping our cause in the short term, often backfires in the long term (pdf). When our extrinsic values come to the forefront, this works to suppress our intrinsic (compassionate) values, making us less likely to support a whole host of progressive causes.

5. Resist the urge to mythbust

It might seem counterintuitive, but directly debunking our opponents’ claims often doesn’t work on a wider scale, and can even backfire. That means it can leave people remembering the original claim we’re trying to refute, and not our carefully researched explanations as to why they’re wrong. A good example of this is the infamous claim of the Leave campaign that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU – though it was thoroughly debunked in many outlets, more than four in ten Brits still believe it’s true.

6. Link stories with structures and solutions

It’s important to do all three of these! While individual stories are vital, we need to be explicit about the wider social structures behind them, to avoid them being seen as one-offs. At the same time, we must be careful how to talk about those structures. People can default to seeing wide, structural problems as too huge to ever tackle, so it’s important to talk about those structures as malleable and be clear that they can be changed.

7. Balance talk of structural inequality with individual agency

The ‘conflicted’ segment of the public – those who agree with both positive and negative messages about equality – believe really strongly in individual agency. We do need to communicate the structural nature of inequality to them, but we have to acknowledge individual agency at the same time – without this, the messages we tested didn’t ring true and were often rejected outright.

8. Talk about a better world

Instead of talking up the scale of the problem we’re facing with ever-increasing intensity, we must inspire people with the better world we could create. Shouting ever louder about how bad things are often makes people bury their heads in the sand, thinking there’s nothing we can do about it. Instead we must remind people of the better world we’re striving for, and be clear that this world really is achievable. As the framing guru Anat Shenker-Osorio puts it, ‘we must be for something desirable rather than merely against something deplorable’.

9. Expand your ‘us’

Aka move away from narratives that unnecessarily divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. However tempting it might be, we can emphasise our audience’s compassion by expanding who they think of as their community, being clear that our solutions are common sense, and it’s our opponents who are the outliers.

10. Foreground messengers who are authentic and credible

Instead of defaulting to the most senior person working on your campaign, or the most famous celebrity you can find, think through who your messengers are a bit more. Messengers who can speak credibly about your issue, such as those with lived experience, or frontline workers, are more credible and often speak more passionately and articulately about the issue than someone further removed.

Want to dive deeper into strategic communications lessons for talking about equality? Download our free guide, How to shift public attitudes on equality, here:

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