How to shift public attitudes on equality: A practical guide for campaigners and communicators

Key findings

Balance

talk of structures with acknowledging agency.

Focus

on the better world you want to create, and make it feel reachable.

Find

messengers who are authentic and credible.

This guide, produced by Equally Ours and funded by Trust for London and the Baring Foundation, aims to equip campaigners and communicators to change hearts and minds on equality.

There’s a growing body of evidence that we can move the needle on public attitudes if we understand what people really think and feel about an issue and why, and communicate by connecting with our most deeply held values, relating progressive causes to the things we care about most.

This guide applies a strategic communications approach to the challenge of showing inequality as structural – deeply embedded in our society and institutions, rather than the responsibility of individuals. It aims to shift thinking away from the belief that anyone can be a successful ‘self-made person’, and towards a recognition that there are still major structural barriers to equality. It is based on a six-month, qualitative and quantitative research project by ComRes for Equally Ours, which itself builds upon previous research for Equally Ours by YouGov.

The challenge this guide seeks to address is how to make more of the British public understand inequality as structural – and therefore increase their support and advocacy for structural solutions. The research was designed so as to be applicable to multiple kinds of equality, such as along lines of race, ability or class, and we made sure to give a wide variety of examples in focus groups to reflect this.

The working definition of structural inequality used for the purposes of the research is:

"Structural inequality is the idea that inequality is embedded across societal institutions, and that this maintains inequality between different groups of people. The way these institutions operate means some people always come off worse – and people who break out and succeed, despite their backgrounds, are the exception. This could be anything from the family, to the economy, to government and the media."

Ten top takeaways

  1. Take your audience away from the meritocracy myth. The belief that we all ‘get out what we put in’ stops us addressing structural barriers to equality – your communications should provide an alternative narrative.
  2. Use the escalator metaphor to explain structural inequality. Describe an unequal society as one where some people have a mix of escalators in their path, while others have only down escalators, and have to run up them
    to get where they want to go.
  3. Engage compassionate values like social justice, friendship and concern for others. By repeatedly activating these values, we increase support for our causes. Use ‘fairness’ with care as it’s often co-opted to reinforce the meritocracy myth.
  4. Stay away from self-centred values like wealth and social status. Avoid invoking these ‘negative’ values, even if they seem to help your cause in the short term – this will only suppress people’s compassionate values and harm your cause in the long term.
  5. Tell a different story instead of debunking opponents’ claims.Refuting or ‘myth-busting’ doesn’t work and can even backfire, leaving people remembering the original claims, but not your debunking of them.
  6. Link personal stories to societal structures, and always pair these with solutions. Always be explicit about
    the structural problems behind your stories, and avoid fatalism by making it clear that we can credibly solve these problems.
  7. Balance talk of structures with acknowledging agency. Don’t go too far in communicating structures – people instinctively disbelieve messages suggesting we have no control over our own fates.
  8. Focus on the better world you want to create, and make it feel reachable. Don’t just talk about how to mitigate
    a problem – inspire people by reminding them of the better world we’re striving for.
  9. Expand the definition of ‘us’. Move away from ‘us and them’ narratives, and broaden who your audience think of as their community.
  10. Find messengers who are authentic and credible. Focus on messengers who can speak credibly about your issue and, if using celebrities, choose them with care!
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How to shift public attitudes on equality: A practical guide for campaigners and communicators

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