Mapping the road forward: 6 steps for building effective messages about sexual violence prevention

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In 2017, the #MeToo movement took the internet by storm. More than just a hashtag, the campaign, which was created in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, became a global movement and shifted the public conversation about sexual violence. #MeToo opened the door to discussions about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault – and created space for many voices that had previously been denied a platform. As we consider how best to support and empower survivors, we also need to consider what it will take to prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place – and raise a generation for whom #MeToo stories are the exception, not the norm.

Helping people to understand that sexual violence can be prevented is a critical step toward achieving that goal, but communicating about prevention is challenging – even for experts with decades of experience. That's in part because sexual violence makes people feel upset, overwhelmed, and anxious, which means they often want to avoid talking about it, especially when they feel powerless to stop it from happening.

There are other challenges, too – like the fact that prevention efforts tend to be less visible than work to support victims of past abuse or assault. "When people talk about prevention, they typically focus on individuals changing their own behaviors: taking self-defense classes, for example, or managing how much alcohol they drink," said Pamela Mejia, BMSG's head of research. "These approaches or other personal safety steps may reduce the risk of sexual violence for some, but if we are to arrive in a world where everyone is safer, where sexual violence isn't tolerated, then we need to change systems, structures, and institutions."

Additionally, experts, advocates, and other stakeholders will need the tools to help community members and decision-makers understand these changes and see what prevention can look like in different settings, such as in college campuses and youth-serving organizations.

"We know it is possible to prevent sexual assault, and we are going to make progress when we can communicate effectively about the concrete actions every person can take to reduce risks and increase safety," said Julie Patrick, national partners liaison for RALIANCE, a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation.

To equip people in the field with the tools needed to do so, we developed "Where We're Going and Where We've Been: Making the Case for Sexual Violence Prevention," a resource for advocates that provides concrete guidance on how to use strategic communication to make the case for changing how institutions and systems approach prevention. With support from our partners at RALIANCE, this guide is the culmination of a journey that began five years ago with the question, "What will it take to reframe sexual violence to focus on prevention?"

As part of that process, we commissioned Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, a public opinion research firm, to help us understand underlying attitudes around sexual violence and sexual violence prevention, to identify barriers and potential opportunities for communicating more effectively, and to develop messaging approaches that help to build support for prevention efforts. That research informed our recommendations in the guide.

Here are some key steps for building effective messages about preventing sexual violence, excerpted from the main guide. However, before we delve into these suggestions, it's important to note that message is never first. Before you can decide what to say, you must know what you want to change, who has the power to change it, and why it needs to be changed. Having this clear overall strategy can increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your communication by helping you allocate time, money, and effort only where they will truly help advance your goals. For more information on how to develop your overall strategy, see Chapter 1 of "Where We're Going and Where We've Been."

Once you have identified your overall strategy, effective messaging can help people manage their complicated emotions and attitudes about sexual violence, understand that prevention is possible, and take action.

An effective message about sexual violence prevention should:

1) Evoke shared values

People's deeply held shared values — the principles that guide how they think the world should work — are the motivating spark that turns communication into action.

Framing our messages around core values — such as innovation, caring for the next generation, safety, and protection — can also help audiences remain open to our ideas and overcome the doubt they may feel about whether prevention is possible. Leading with shared values is a good idea because it gives people an entry point into a difficult conversation they may not otherwise feel ready to have.

2) Acknowledge negative feelings, like discomfort, fear, or lingering doubts

Audiences have many negative and complicated feelings about sexual violence — like fear, disgust, or doubt that prevention is possible. By acknowledging these difficult feelings, we can help audiences manage them, rather than interpreting them as a reason to avoid the subject. Once we address the initial discomfort that people feel around the topic of sexual violence, we are better positioned to model a path forward, frame sexual abuse as preventable, and shift the conversation toward tangible action and change.

3) Describe a journey toward change, its starting point, and pivotal moments

Even if we acknowledge people's anxieties about sexual abuse and assault, if we don't also provide next steps or pathways toward change that help them channel their fears into action, people may just become overwhelmed and shut down. We can help audiences manage those feelings when we show them that prevention is possible by modeling journeys that people they can identify with have taken to prevent sexual violence. That can mean telling stories about people whose starting point was discomfort, fear, or fatalism about sexual violence. Then, we can show the pathway to change by clearly describing what motivated that person to take action to prevent abuse in their institution.

4) State the problem precisely

What's the problem you want to solve? How you define the problem affects how people think about solving it. In trying to communicate about how big, and how important, sexual violence prevention is, it can be tempting to try and say everything that you know about sexual violence prevention any time you talk about it. Resist that urge, and remember: It is impossible to be comprehensive and strategic at the same time. To make your statement of the problem clear and understandable, focus on just one aspect at a time, based on your overall strategy.

5) Show success

Sometimes, even once people are motivated to help make change, they can get stuck on whether solutions will really solve anything or feel that if they can't completely prevent sexual violence, then those solutions aren't worth pursuing. In other words, people need to see that prevention is possible and that it works. Success measures don't have to be dramatic; in fact, they probably won't be. Think about the measures of success, including data, stories, and examples that will connect with your audience, based on your overall strategy.

6) Name concrete solutions

Your message should support the prevention strategy you are working toward in the near term. Preventing a problem as complex as sexual violence will require such a wide range of approaches that it can feel overwhelming to pick just one – but in our research we learned that people don't have many examples of prevention in action and are hungry to learn more about what it looks like. Part of what we need to do, then, is show people that both individuals and organizations can put systems in place that can prevent sexual abuse and assault. By naming the immediate approach you are pursuing, you will help people see that prevention is possible in the long run, too.

For more information on building your overall strategy, tips for constructing messages, and examples of how to apply these guidelines to specific types of systems-level change, view the full report: "Where We're Going and Where We've Been."

This guide exists because sexual violence doesn't have to be a fact of life. Prevention is happening every day, but it won't become the norm unless more people become part of it. We hope you will take some of the ideas that we put into the guide and bring them to life in your own work. No progress is too small — every step toward prevention is a step in the right direction.

Have you seen examples of effective messaging around prevention? We would love to hear from you! Get in touch with us at info@bmsg.org@BMSG, or on Facebook.


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