“Upstream” interventions, or those aimed at audiences that can influence environmental and policy change, are often a mystery to many social marketers who confront these unique challenges for the first time. Social marketers who work in the policy change arena have had few resources that directly address the interface of policy change and social marketing. Here are a few to get you started.
As early as 1988, Murray & Douglas [Social marketing in the alcohol policy arena. British Journal of Addiction, 1988; 83:505-511] noted “If our product is to be defined as policy consultation, then it must include an interactive component, a capacity to feed back from the external environment through the policy developer, aspects of the social, economic and political realities which are true for the policymaker.” They go on to identify key audiences for this enterprise as being policy makers, media, and the public. Their analysis led them to call for a three step marketing effort: a long term strategy to prepare policy makers, the media and public for policy change; a short-term strategy to take advantage of opportunities to initiate policy change as they arise; and a broad marketing effort to encourage public support for the policy once it has passed into law.
Two more recent studies have looked at the question of how to apply social marketing principles to meet the information needs of policy makers. Sutton & Thompson [Social Marketing Quarterly, 2001;7:16-26] conducted quantitative research with 29 policy makers. Their findings included:
- Policy makers are overwhelmed by the large quantity of research directed toward them and perceive that it lacks relevant and useful information.
- The research they receive fails to meet their needs because it does not draw differences or provide implications for policy makers that can be used to support different positions.
- Policy makers have confidence in peer-reviewed articles. However the extended timelines (publication lag) and limited accessibility of this research forces them more often to rely on less credible sources of information.
- The inability to access information when they need it often results in policy decisions being made without data.
- The unavailability of timely, accurate data is largely attributable to a system that they say is broken. Some policy makers use their own personal networks (or “informed experts”) to close this gap.
The authors conclude that policy research programs must recognize policy makers as a primary audience and research findings should be designed as a product or service to meet their needs using social marketing principles.
Sorian & Baugh conducted interviews with 292 state government legislators and legislative staff. Among their findings was that 35% of the policy-related material the respondents received are never read: a result that is in part determined by the timeliness and relevance of the information to current policy debates. Legislative staffs are more likely to read the details of policy reports while the legislators are more interested in one-two page briefs with short, bulleted paragraphs. Nearly 84% of policy makers report preferences for trusted sources of information such as a professional association, a state group, a foundation, or a State or Federal Government agency. And while the debates flourish among policy researchers about discussing the implications of the research, 8 9% of the respondents indicated a desire to know how the researcher views the implications and wants to see/hear their recommendations even if they do not ultimately follow that advice. Finally, survey participants felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they receive, and expressed an interest in ways to identify research and key experts in specific fields. The key take away messages for the authors of this study were: policymakers should not be underestimated in their ability to understand the strengths and limitations of research. Timeliness and relevance to current debates is a key factor in policy makers’ and shapers’ attentiveness to policy research. And finally, these audiences have different information needs and communication preferences that need to be addressed by social marketing program designers and implementers. [Source: Health Affairs, 2002;21:262-273.]