The Power of the “Message Box”


I’m on my way to Halifax getting ready to give a communications workshop at the ALLIES conference on supporting skilled immigrants. There, my colleague Marco Campana and I are focusing on message development and social media. One tool I’ll offer is the classic “message box”. It’s a simple tool to help map out the messaging landscape on an issue, including the clear contrasts between your own core messages, plan and positioning, and that of your opponents.

The concept is both powerful and dead simple – that’s why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. In fact, I was first exposed to it in more detail at the 1999 Campaigns and Elections conference in Washington, D.C. But the message box is also invaluable for not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. Even where there do not appear to be clear “opponents” to a policy solution, there are often unspoken positions that stand in the way of success. Crafting a smart, thoughtful message box will help bring those barriers to the surface, while clarifying the core messages your team seeks to drive home.

Creating your message box
Here’s how to create your message box: draw a square, and divide it into quadrants. Label the upper-left quadrant “Us on Us”; the upper right, “Them on Them”; lower-left “Us on Them”, and lower-right “Them on Us”. That’s the basic framework. It will look like the image on the left. The next step is to then fill it in. To do so, an effective communications campaign will draw on a combination of your campaign team’s values and vision, combined with its deep understanding of the target audiences’ values, beliefs and attitudes (based on thorough research), and a thorough scan of the opposing arguments, plans or positions that may stand in the way. The end result: a message box filled with just a few very short, clear phrases or ideas – usually in the form of 1-5 bullet points for each quadrant.

Us on Us
Let’s start with the first quadrant. What are we saying about ourselves, our issue, or our plan? This is where we distill the core theme and positioning of the campaign –where we describe what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. Sounds simple, right? The irony is that many social change advocates, as well as political folks with a strong history of serving as Official Opposition, are so steeped in what I call a “culture of opposition” that they can find this step surprisingly challenging! But this is the place where we paint a brief but compelling picture about the vision we stand for – a picture our audiences can vividly imagine being part of.

Them on Them
Now turn to the upper right quadrant. What is the “other side” saying about themselves and their position and plan? What is their call to action or solution? Complete the upper right quadrant with 1-5 bullet points, again using the best research available (e.g., based on mainstream and social media scans, or interviews with key opinion leaders). This is another place where I’ve seen some advocacy groups get tripped up: sometimes, because they don’t feel the opponents’ arguments are legitimate, they don’t take the time to deeply understand them. Their counter-arguments then ring hollow, and fail to reach or convince those all-important ‘persuadable’ target audiences.

Them on Us
The next two quadrants are relatively easy. What are our opponents saying about us and our arguments? How will they seek to frame our issues and position us overall? They will almost certainly be seeking to highlight our weaknesses, and to then contrast those with their own strengths and the merits of their positions. In a political or highly contentious advocacy campaign, they will seek to dominate the debate here – to put our team on the defensive. Anticipating those aspects of the message box will help your campaign team prepare to inoculate or mitigate against those message elements.

Us on Them
The final quadrant is where your team prepares to pre-empt the messages of your opponents. What are we saying about the other side and their plan or position? What are their weakest positions and arguments – and how do they contrast with our strengths most starkly? It is from this quadrant, along with “Us on Us”, that a campaign team will seek to dominate the debate through strong, effective messages.

Overall, a campaign will always seek to control the message; in other words, to dominate the debate from the left-hand column. And while you may craft a message box at the beginning of a campaign, it is unlikely to remain static. The communications landscape is dynamic; peoples’ views change, the tenor and intensity of media stories shift, and new players enter the debate. This means that messaging needs to change over time. In a political campaign, while the core messaging themes may remain consistent, some elements of a message box may change from week to week.

Case study: Obama versus McCain, 2008
For a case study of a powerful (and obviously highly successful) message box that changes over time, see this article by communications consultant Kathy McShea. McShea does a fantastic job of laying out the basic message box used by the Obama campaign in the 2008 US election race. And it changed at key points along the way; scroll down to the message box and click on the large arrow on the right to see how.

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