Modern Issue Advocacy: Communicating Less to Inspire More

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio segment on the education level of famous presidential speeches. George Washington, for instance, used PhD-level discourse, while Barak Obama uses language that can be understood by fourth graders.

To be fair, the presidential audience has expanded significantly from the political elite of the 18th century to virtually all citizens today, through television and other media. However, this topic set me to wondering if it’s appropriate to “dumb down” important content in order to reach a broader audience.

As a communications professional, am I doing a disservice to the public by simplifying complex ideas?

Issue advocacy is one of the most important roles that the strategic communications industry can play. At the heart of a successful democracy is an informed and engaged electorate. In an ideal world, voters would have a thoughtful opinion on every issue with a range of background information and data to back it up.

But it’s simply unrealistic to expect voters to be experts on the myriad issues affecting Americans today. So the two questions communicators must wrestle with are:

1  How do I help voters to understand my issue?

2  How do I convince voters to care about my issue?

Introducing citizens to a new issue with convoluted explanations and complex jargon is more likely to exasperate and deter listeners from the issue entirely.

Issue advocacy is about providing educational entry points for voters and piquing their interest. Once an individual has developed a basic understanding of the issue and expressed a desire to learn more, then it’s incumbent upon you to help them discover and explore sources of more exhaustive information.

The danger and inherent risk in simplifying issues is the potential to distort the truth in order to advance a client’s agenda. From our experience, we’ve learned that the most successful voter education campaigns are based on sharing the facts in as objective an environment as possible. If you lose the trust of voters, they’ll never listen to your arguments or view you as a valuable resource.

I believe that as communicators, we’re actually providing a valuable service by simplifying content and appealing to a broader audience. Americans are busy and often overwhelmed. Today’s issue advocates look to social platforms, microsites, and media campaigns, which all favor quick, concise messages. If we can use these to help wade through the issues that matter, then we’ll be a stronger society because of it.