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Recent News

Events of note in the world of strategic framing and communications – from the Topos perspective

The Explanation Gap


Informed citizens are the foundation of effective democracy, but informing citizens depends on providing the context for issues that most mass media neglect; that’s where nonprofits come in. Read the whole report.

Lead, Crime, and Politics

Photo Credit: flickr Ben C

In a recent cover article for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tells a fascinating story about how researchers have uncovered a surprising connection: The sharp increase in violent crime in post-war America, and the sharp decline since the 1990s, may be largely due to one surprising factor – leaded vs. unleaded gasoline.

If true (and the evidence certainly seems compelling), the story of this discovery is important food for thought on many levels, with a number of lessons for communicating effectively on social issues.

Moral vs. material dimensions of an issue

It is all too easy to interpret any public issue in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” at the simplest level.

  • Child abuse is committed by “bad guys” – so there is little that the rest of the community can do beyond policing and imprisoning.
  • Farmers are “good guys” so there is no reason to be concerned about the practices they use to eliminate insects or maximize crop yields.
  • Even the economy is shaped by the choices of “good guys” (who work hard, are loyal to employees, make responsible purchases etc.) and “bad guys” (who spend beyond their means, treat employees cruelly, and so forth).

What these tempting interpretations often miss are the “material” dimensions of the story. How do housing arrangements – which increase or decrease social isolation – end up affecting rates of child maltreatment? How does excessive nitrogen fertilizer affect the ecosystems of downstream lakes, rivers and oceans? How is the economy shaped by laws that make it harder or easier for workers to stick together for their common interests?

The lead poisoning story provides a beautiful illustration of the fact that the “material” dimension, that can seem dry and technical, is often much more important than the simple and appealing moral story about “bad guys” (violent criminals) and the role of parenting, video games, and moral values in creating them.  In fact, the moral story is often deliberately used to distract public attention from the material concerns that policy can address.  Read More

Beyond Winning – Change the Culture

When we at Topos are asked what distinguishes our approach from how others develop communications strategy, the answer is simple: We focus on creating tools for changing the culture.

On issue after issue, advocates for important causes must contend with cultural patterns that work against their goals. Despite these communicators’ passion, wisdom and hard work, progress is often frustratingly slow because broadly shared patterns of thought and understanding are preventing progress and engagement.

Communicators often know or sense – whether through research, instinct or experience – that they are up against stubborn patterns like these. So what to do?

Unfortunately, one all-too-common approach is to work “with” current attitudes rather than against them. For instance, communicators are advised to “beat up on government” before advancing their own proposals. They are told that referring to government’s shortcomings or failures is a way to “connect” with the public, to show they “get it.”

But what happens when this advice is followed? One result is predictable: further reinforcement of the attitudes that stand in our way. So even a “win” ends up making future victories more difficult, and may in any case be reversed or undermined by the next vote.

In this way communicators can end up winning a battle while losing the war – because they haven’t worked towards changing the culture, towards the kind of change that lasts.

With this short memo, we explain the limitations of winning without culture change.