In 2013, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed legislation to create the first state-funded preschool program in that state’s history. This gave thousands of children from low-income families the opportunity to start school with a strong foundation for building vital math, literacy, and social skills. Plenty of child advocates celebrated the achievement, but interestingly, some of the loudest cheers came from police chiefs, evangelical pastors, and retired admirals and generals. We know this, because we know them as members of three of the organizations that make up the nonprofit Council for a Strong America (CSA).
CSA is a nonpartisan national organization with five member groups: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (law enforcement leaders dedicated to reducing crime); Mission: Readiness (retired admirals and generals focused on increasing national security); ReadyNation (business leaders who promote policies that create a stronger pipeline to the workforce); Shepherding the Next Generation (evangelical pastors and ministry leaders who advocate for practices that create stable families and communities); and Champions for America’s Future (a national network of sports leaders championing proven public investments in youth to create a stronger, healthier America).
Each group works to achieve outcomes that are important to their members, yet they are united by their desire to prepare children to be healthy, well-educated, productive citizens. With political ideologies across the spectrum, they focus on practical, proven policies that often save taxpayer dollars as well.
Are these groups surprising champions for policy change? Yes. But they can be remarkably effective. And they’re not the first. Some of the most successful efforts to protect wildlife habitats have been achieved through alliances between environmentalists and hunters. Through The Pew Trusts Public Safety Performance Project, advocates of smaller government are working alongside offender-rights groups to change sentencing policies to reduce public spending on prisons. And through Pew’s shark conservation effort, victims of shark attacks are leading spokespeople arguing for protection of the global shark population.
Unexpected messengers have also been at the forefront of recent bipartisan policy advances in Washington. In 2015, as Congress debated the details of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper made a bottom-line business case for early education funding by emphasizing how it would ultimately lead to more college graduates who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy.
These efforts generate plenty of media attention, and their ultimate success comes from policy victories. The Public Safety Performance Project, for example, is projected to save more than $2 billion in public safety costs in Arkansas, South Carolina, and Texas. The Shark Conservation Act has closed loopholes in existing laws, creating an international mandate for shark conservation and making shark finning illegal in US waters. And although conventional wisdom paints a picture of Congress as being hopelessly divided, ESSA education legislation was signed into law with strong bipartisan support in December, with the first-ever dedicated funding for early learning included in the authorization.
We encourage advocacy organizations working across the political spectrum to consider how unexpected messengers can advance causes and issues. Here are three important lessons we’ve learned along the way.
1. Let the messengers speak for themselves. For all of the reasons described here, you want your audiences to recognize that they’re not hearing from “the usual suspects.” Importantly, the audience also has to understand why these particular people feel the way they do. The message will resonate only if it is truly authentic. Once you determine mutual interest in an issue, ask your messengers to describe, in their own words, why they care. Think through the personal stake they have in the issue. Start with what matters most to them as you plan the course of action you are going to take together.
2. Focus on bottom-line impacts that are directly relevant to your messengers’ lives. When unexpected messengers turned up to promote early learning in Mississippi, they consistently focused on tangible impacts. Law enforcement leaders cited studies that showed at-risk children who participated in high-quality early learning were less likely to become criminals, thereby protecting public safety and saving taxpayer dollars. Pastors emphasized that children who experienced quality early learning could be less likely to have children out of wedlock. Retired admirals and generals made their case by citing the shocking news that more than 70 percent of the nation’s young adults cannot qualify for military service because they are overweight, undereducated, or have a criminal record. They then cited research that shows how quality early learning fosters academic achievement, thereby enabling more young adults to pass the military’s assessments of reading, math, and problem-solving skills.
By speaking from their own unique experiences, each group delivered compelling messages with indisputable authenticity.
3. Remember the power of personal connection. In our efforts, we often pair the early education and crime prevention message with “cops and tots” events where police chiefs read to preschoolers. The youngsters convey a message of hope that’s directly tied to the policy request. When we hold press events to champion career-focused high schools, we spotlight students who tell stories of their success. And in a recent effort to emphasize the need for sound nutrition and physical activity, we worked in partnership with journalists to showcase the difficult journey that one overweight young man took to meet the military’s fitness standards. In each example, there are solid, factual reasons to support the cause, but the personal stories ultimately carry the day.
Advocacy groups representing all parts of the political spectrum will continue to battle for policy wins that reinforce their ideologies. Political gridlock is not going away anytime soon. But whether they wear badges, business suits, clerical collars, Olympic medals, or medals of honor, unexpected messengers offer unique voices that can cut through the clutter and bridge the partisan divide.