The Three Tools for Persuasive Communications
Remember three key elements: sound bites, stories and data.
Sound bites are concise, memorable, very short messages to use and repeat in media interviews. They can be adapted for specific events, media and speaking opportunities. Ensure that they are simple, compelling and “sticky.”
Below are sample juvenile justice sound bites. You can find additional resources in the Message Bank.
- “We can keep the community safer by helping youth who get into trouble stay in school and connected with family.”
- “All youth make mistakes, but we don’t give up on them.”
- “Youth in trouble should be at home with guidance, education and a network of support in their community to get back on track.”
Stories are one of the most effective communications tools that we have at our disposal. When you’re doing media outreach, for instance, lead with the story of one youth’s experience with the juvenile justice system, ideally a success story that shows young people can change and pursue a brighter future.
Key Elements of a Story
- Protagonist or Main Character
- Who will your audience(s) relate to or be inspired by?
- Will her/his values or life experiences build support for what it takes to change the odds for kids throughout a system?
Share a story that illustrates a larger truth about how specific policies or practices contribute to a young person’s success. While you’re lifting up an individual ― research shows that lifting up an individual’s story, rather than speaking generally about a large group, evokes more audience empathy ― your goal is to demonstrate how the system’s policies or practices benefit young people, not to tout a talented and lucky exception.
- What challenges has she/he gone through?
- Will those challenges speak to your audiences?
- What were the system challenges to helping this young person succeed?
- How has the protagonist changed as a result of their journey?
- How has the system achieved its goals with the policies and practices that helped this young person be successful?
- How can the world be a better place if we learn from their story?
Storytelling Best Practices
- Have a clear message. Know what you want your target audiences to DO after they hear the story. Whenever possible, pair your story with a call to action so the engagement continues.
- Determine how the story will illustrate your core messages and reform goals. Highlight stories where youth have received the support they needed to get back on track.
- Choose a main character. When possible, highlight first-person narratives from youth and family involved with the juvenile justice system.
- Describe how practices and policies contribute to success. Make sure these practices and policies are explained simply so audiences can quickly understand.
- Paint a picture. Adding a few small, descriptive details to a story helps it feel more authentic.
- Be succinct and clear. There’s no need to tell every single detail in a story. Stick to the elements that make it emotional and help your audience identify with the storyteller. Also, make sure you’ve scrubbed it clean of any jargon.
- Be relevant and compelling. Select stories that are pertinent to your target audiences or connect to trending issues.
- Lead with stories and punctuate with data. Don’t start with the data, or overwhelm stories with data points, but do have a succinct data point that drives the message home.
- Use visuals. When possible, enrich written stories with visuals or audio. Making them multi-media broadens your dissemination options.
- End with a call to action. Make clear what you want the audience to do or takeaway from the story.
Balancing storytelling efforts with privacy issues
While stories are powerful tools to demonstrate reform, sourcing these stories often runs up against very real privacy concerns because none of us want to stigmatize a youth or jeopardize his or her future prospects. Here are some of the tactics that Public Information Officers use to safeguard youth privacy when engaging with the media or telling stories themselves:
- Understand the media outlet’s policy for identifying youth charged with crimes before providing access. Consider limiting access to outlets that do not use names or that will only use first names of youth. Take photographs in silhouette or in ways that do not depict faces, identifiable tattoos or features.
- Explore audio storytelling mediums like podcasts where youth can share their own story without their image or name appearing.
Data and facts can be important proof points for your stories and sometimes break positive news for you to share. They can be hard to remember, but provide validation. If you do refer to data with the media, try to use facts that are simple and tell the story at a glance ― not complicated statistics that require people to do math in their heads. And one or two data points at once is enough; too many competing statistics can muddle the story line.
A sample of combining messaging and data below, on youth detention:
Whether a youth is held in a detention facility or allowed to remain at home while awaiting a hearing or placement has a big impact on that young person’s future. Every year about 300,000 young people are in youth detention with 20,000, held on any given night. [Substitute local data if available]
Research shows that the kids who are detained before their hearings are far more likely to end up committed to youth prisons than those kids who were allowed to stay at home. Kids pulled from their families and communities are ultimately less likely to complete high school and find employment, and more likely to face mental health problems.
Looking at youth detention, it’s clear JDAI’s efforts are making a positive difference in the lives of young people. Our sites show a 43 percent decrease for all youth detained from before reforms began, with no decrease in public safety. That’s thousands of kids given a solid chance to get their lives back on track.
[In our community, we’ve kept X more young people from entering the juvenile system by developing effective alternatives to detention. We’re proud to help kids, keep our community safe and avoid the overuse of lockup facilities that can hurt rather than rehabilitate youth.]
Before sharing data externally, vet the information with your agency data expert to ensure it is both accurate and helpful to the larger story you seek to tell. Prepare yourself to answer follow-up questions on how specific data points are gathered and measured over time. If you have a choice between several different indicators, lead with the data points which build the strongest case and are the least vulnerable to undermining.
Spokesperson Preparation and Interview Tips
When prepping for a print, radio or TV interview, review the seven tips below with whomever will be speaking on behalf of the agency to maximize the spokesperson’s control of the message and the conversation.
- You Don’t Have to Answer Every Question
No one can put words in your mouth but you. If the question helps you, go for it. If the premise of the question is too negative or challenging, simply frame your answer to the question you want to answer. You are in control of what you say.
- Nothing is “Off the Record”
There are no rules that govern this or ensure safety. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to hear or read on the news.
- Remember Who You’re Really Talking To (Hint: It's not the reporter.)
When you’re talking, remember the people who will ultimately hear or read what you say: your organization's staff and supporters, elected officials, community leaders and others. The media is a conduit to getting out the message to those you wish to reach.
- Know What You Want to Say First
Before talking to a reporter, think about the most important message people need to hear. Make it simple. If you try to say too much, you’ll water down what’s most important.
- Repeat and Use “Flagging”
Once you know what the most important thing is to say, look for opportunities to repeat it over and over so there’s no chance someone misses it. “Flagging” is using phrases that get people’s attention, like “The most important thing is…” or “What people really need to know is…”
- Use “Bridging” to Control the Conversation
You don’t have to answer every question. Also, you don’t have to accept a question framed against you. Instead, use “bridging” so you can talk about what you want to talk about. “Bridging” is using phrases that help you go to another place, like “What’s really important is…” or “The research shows that…”
For example, if a reporter were to pose the question, “What measures need to be put in place to keep communities safe as juvenile offenders are increasingly being released back into their neighborhoods rather than held in facilities?”
This question begins with premise that community-based alternatives are at odds with public safety. Bridging can be used to immediately draw attention to contrary evidence, thereby refusing to answer a question framed against you. A good response would be, “As research has shown, youth being served and supervised in their communities hasn’t negatively impacted public safety.”
- Don’t Talk to Fill the Silence
This is especially true for TV or radio interviews. When you’re done making your point, stop. It’s normal to be nervous, but chatting can get you in trouble.
- It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”
Never make something up because you don’t know the answer. Reporters don’t want to publish information that isn’t true. It’s better to say you’ll find out what the answer is and get back to them or tell them who would know the answer.
Approaching a Crisis
The best way to avoid a crisis is to be well prepared. Any situation can turn negative or escalate if it’s not handled appropriately. That’s why it’s important to prepare and rehearse in advance―before a situation emerges.
The best defense is a good offense. It’s critical that you do not wait until something happens to communicate the progress and challenges of reform to your stakeholders and to the media. PIOs should engage in year-round efforts which can help set systems up for success:
- Build a base of support among validators―By making your broadest group of stakeholders aware of your agency’s direction, you are giving them information they might need if they are asked by a reporter to comment on an incident at your agency. They would be more likely to see a critical incident as an aberration as opposed to a deterrent to a more rehabilitative approach.
- Build your credibility with reporters―It’s critical to cultivate relationships with members of the press so they are familiar with you, consider you a credible, responsive source of information and understand the basics of your local JDAI efforts and what they have achieved.
- Know your data and keep current data accessible―Critical incidents might happen outside of normal business hours. Be prepared to respond wherever you are.
- Establish the chain of command for response―While it’s not possible to predict the exact circumstances of a crisis, systems should establish protocols for potential crises, including identifying the chain of command for notification, identifying and preparing potential spokespeople and planning for keeping key JDAI stakeholders informed ahead of the press. Depending on the severity of an issue, it may be appropriate for a department official to be the public face of the agency during an incident. Identifying criteria for this in advance will streamline decision making in the midst of a crisis.
As spokespeople for government agencies and proponents of JDAI reform goals, public information officers often find themselves balancing the need to defend or protect “the system” while also communicating the goals of JDAI reform. In times of crisis, this can be an especially delicate balance.
The following is a short guide your team can use to approach and evaluate communications risks and develop your communications capacity through five distinct phases of risk management and crisis response.
Phase I: Prepare. What systems need to be in place before a problem emerges? Lay the groundwork for effectively managing and responding to an expected or unexpected crisis ahead of time.
- Evaluate current capacity to handle a crisis, using knowledge of your work and the field to anticipate what situations could arise and present significant challenges.
- Form a crisis response team and draft a crisis response plan that specifically outlines the communications aspects of a critical incident.
- Update your messages/talking points, focusing on sample crisis responses that can come jointly from the JDAI collaborative.
- Create a plan for keeping key stakeholders informed, including agency staff as well as key staff of other agencies or organizations who are part of the JDAI collaborative.
- Create media lists and protocols.
- Identify and train spokespeople.
- Monitor media coverage and online conversations.
Phase II: Prevent. How are you going to establish the facts and assess the risks?
- Identify the problem. Keep your eyes and ears open to internal channels of information, along with what is happening in the news media and social media.
- Establish the facts. It is important that the facts are quickly established so that the crisis response team can develop appropriate strategies and adapt the prepared crisis response plan to address the situation at hand.
- Assess the risk. Once a situation has been identified and the facts have been confirmed, it is important to assess its risk.
- Minimize and contain a problem before it escalates into a full-scale crisis.
Phase III: Alert. Who needs to know early on that a situation is brewing? Follow your plan for alerting the appropriate contacts among your staff, legal, chain of command, spokespeople and key partners so that everyone with a role in implementing the crisis response plan can do so quickly and effectively.
Phase IV: Respond. What steps need to be taken to manage the situation?
- Inform stakeholders and address their concerns in your response.
- Issue a coordinated response across multiple media platforms.
- Monitor media so you know what information is circulating, bearing in mind that some of what you are hearing may be incorrect or incomplete. You may need to correct or clarify what is being reported.
- Prepare spokespeople with the latest news and messages.
Phase V: Improve. What lessons should be learned from the experience? Document and communicate key lessons in order to improve crisis response plans and protocols for future situations.
CRISIS SCENARIO: A youth in a community-based diversion program is accused of committing a violent act
While JDAI has safely reduced the use of detention, it is an unfortunate reality that on occasion systems will have to respond to an issue of public safety or violence concerning a diverted youth. What follows is a crisis scenario and guidance on how to approach it from a crisis communications perspective:
A 17-year old young man was arrested for a non-violent offense. Based on his assessed risk level, he was not detained before his trial and instead required to check in at an evening reporting center. Before his trial date, this youth was arrested and charged with aggravated assault (according to police, he had attempted to pull a woman’s purse from her arms and when she resisted, he struck her across the face repeatedly, knocking her down). This time, the youth was detained pending trial for his initial offense as well as the new one. You are in a state where juvenile arrests are public information. You see on Facebook that a local councilmember has posted images of the victim―and her fresh bruises―demanding a crackdown against “young predators who are running amok because the system’s too soft on crime.” The Facebook post has 200 likes within an hour and lots of shares. You anticipate media inquiries will start coming in soon.
Scenarios like the above can be particularly challenging for systems to respond to because 1) they are unpredictable and 2) response options may be limited at the time of occurrence.
As a professional in the juvenile justice field, you are able to put one incident, even a particularly disturbing or violent one, into perspective and know that it doesn’t undermine the larger positive results of the detention alternatives. However, for an audience just being introduced to the juvenile justice system through one breaking news event, or for a crime reporter, attempts to pivot to a more positive story may come across as evasive or even dismissive of public safety concerns.
Immediately following a violent or critical incident, it’s important to:
- Let people know what the current threat level is to public safety
- Keep all stakeholders apprised of the situation and updated on planned responses
- Do not cast blame on key partners; think about how the JDAI collaborative as a collective would respond
- Be clear that all youth are held accountable
- Review your data in anticipation of questions. In this scenario, you could anticipate questions about how often youth who are assessed as low-risk commit violence. You need to get a sense of the data before you can assess how and if to use it.
The best outcome is that this “outrage” doesn’t jump from Facebook to the press, but given that the person who posted the item seems to be a vocal and visible opponent of detention reform, it is likely that the media could become involved in the future. You would want to facilitate your agency head and other credible messengers to be proactive with elected officials and other key partners, including communities, about what JDAI does, why objective risk screening makes sense and the effectiveness of alternatives. You would want to get ahead of this vocal and visible opponent by meeting with editorial boards about the progress you are making, submitting op-eds and keeping your potential validators current on compelling talking points about where you are. See below for the types of information you might want to convey.