Engage Constituents by Telling Your Community Story

In the Wednesday morning General Session, both speakers focused on positive communication techniques to encourage community members to care about and respond to important issues. Jennifer Nichols, assistant director of research interpretation and application at the FrameWorks Institute, spoke about the value of strategic framing to deal with a variety of social issues. Kim Haddow, director of the Local Solutions Support Center, focused on key communication strategies surrounding a topic of great importance to local government – state preemption of local authority.

Strategic Framing

Communicating with the members of your community is about more than just sharing facts and figures.  You often want to get their support for an important issue or project. That’s where strategic framing comes into play, says Jennifer Nichols. Strategic framing influences how people receive your message and how you want them to respond. It’s basically a set of choices you make:

  • What to say
  • What to emphasize
  • What not to say

Nichols shared that everyone’s understanding of an issue is frame-dependent, so if you change the frame, you can potentially change their viewpoint. She shared two examples to illustrate that point. In the first example, she was working with a substance abuse treatment program that used empathy as the framework for most of their communications. “Wouldn’t you want your loved one to have access to treatment?” She set up an experiment to test other values – interdependence, ingenuity, and empathy – and discovered that interdependence got the strongest response. That led the program to change the focus of their communications.

In the second example, Nichols’ team asked several young or middle-aged people about their opinion of elderly people. Most of them responded negatively and didn’t see much value in older people After the interviewees were presented with information that depicted older people as “building momentum,” they changed their opinion and saw older people as having a lot of knowledge and wisdom to contribute to society.

Four Ways to Frame More Effectively

To be successful in changing the frame and hopefully the response, Nichols offered four steps.

  1. Tell complete stories. Provide people with all the information they need so they don’t fill in the blanks on their own. Answer the big questions – Why does this matter? How does this work? If it’s not working, why not? What can we do about it? If you don’t help people understand what you want them to do, they can’t come along and help you.
  2. Make the affirmative case. Our brains aren’t logical and don’t necessarily care about facts and figures. Present the issue in a positive way that makes them feel like they can make a difference.
  3. Make data meaningful. Give people a context in which to view data to guide their thinking about the issue. Social math is very helpful. It creates a relationship between the data and something people are more familiar with. For example, not many people can relate to the huge number in this statement: The tobacco industry spends $12.5 billion a year promoting smoking.” Rephrase that statement using social math and you get something most people can understand: “The tobacco industry spends more money promoting smoking in a week than the entire federal government spends on preventing smoking in a year.”
  4. Avoid crisis cues. Intuitively it feels like you should yell FIRE to get people’s attention, but it doesn’t work for long-term, sustainable change. Problem statements without solutions backfire.

In short – avoid “The sky is falling!” and rely more on “The Little Engine That Could.”

Preemption of Local Authority






Much of Kim Haddow’s work deals with efforts by state governments to preempt the authority of local governments on a variety of issues. She has seen a new era of preemption in recent years – sweeping state laws that clearly, intentionally, and extensively bar local efforts. Preemption is being used in new and disturbing ways to:

  • Punish elected officials and cities
  • Overturn ballot elections
  • Perpetuate economic and racial inequity
  • End local regulation

Since 2010, Haddow has seen the quantity of preemption laws skyrocket. States are disrupting the normal democratic process and weakening the ability of cities and villages to make their own decisions. Some states have gone so far as to pass “Death Star” bills that eliminate local authority on numerous issues all at once. For example, a bill in Florida would impose sweeping and severe limitations on the ability of local governments to pass laws regulating businesses and preempt local LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances.

All of this is happening despite consistent voter opinions to the contrary:

  • Voters have a much higher opinion of local government than state or federal government
  • Local communities should be able to pass their own laws
  • Voters are deeply concerned about the consequences of preemption


To combat the wave of local preemption, Haddow recommends employing communication techniques similar to Nichols’ strategic framing.

  • Education is CRITICAL. Without information, voters are included to assume that legislators are using preemption to enforce consistency.
  • Use illustrative examples. Use cases where preemption has caused harm in issues that touch people’s live, like health, public safety, and non-discrimination.
  • Tie state interference to special interests and lobbyists.

Patchwork Argument

State governments often advance the patchwork argument to justify their actions. “When local governments each pass their own laws and policies,it creates a patchwork of laws across the state, which creates confusion and more red tape or paperwork for businesses.” Don’t fall for that argument.

Recommendation DOs

  • Fight values with values. Stress the value of local governments – its effectiveness, accountability, and agency.
  • Educate voters about the harm caused by state interference cause by state interference – public safety is being threatened, people are losing wages and the ability to care for their families, etc.
  • Make it personal. How does it affect me and my family?
  • Assign motive and consider language. Don’t talk about “preemption.” Instead, use the term “state interference and talk about the “misuse” or “abuse” of preemption.
  • Use the terms “local democracy” and “local control”
  • Use affirmative messaging. Local governments are designed to support healthy families, a clean environment, and good jobs in our communities.What’s the problem? How can we fix it?

Both Nichols and Haddow offered valuable advice for effectively communicating with constituents and encouraging their support of issues that matter to our communities.

For more information on the FrameWorks Institute, visit https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/

For more information on the Local Solutions Support Center, visit http://leap-preemption.org/index.html