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Richard Brandon and Andrew Gordon from the University of Washington describe how they are evaluating the effectiveness of communications strategies aimed at strengthening the linkage between public opinion and public policy.

Efforts to restructure human services and to enable communities to become more involved with child protection require the engagement of both the general public and policymakers. Many human-services related communications efforts suffer from a lack of careful design, however. Without a strong base in public opinion research and careful message testing and evaluation, one may settle for a message which attracts attention but has little impact on opinions or behavior.

The Communications for Child Protection Project, funded by the Stuart Foundations, is an effort to test a model of community-based communication that strengthens the linkage between public opinion and public policy. Findings from a study of the current state of media coverage show that sensationalized coverage of a few tragic events skews public and policymakers' understanding of the problems facing children and families as well as the translation of that understanding into action. The study also shows that the public is very concerned about protecting children. The Communications Project seeks to develop a communication strategy that does not just convey information or evoke emotional responses, but rather elicits changes in specific policy-relevant behavior. Examples of major project outcomes desired include agreement on an “umbrella message” for all participants to incorporate in their individual communications; the placement of tragic incidents in context of the broad scope of the problem; a shift in emphasis from sole responsibility of government agencies to inclusive responsibility of communities and families; a shift in the balance of expenditure from investigation to prevention; promotion of public/private partnerships; increased general public focus on child protection and prevention of abuse and neglect; and an understanding of the family and community factors involved in child abuse and neglect.

The major project interventions designed to achieve those outcomes are:

  • Public opinion research to understand linkages among beliefs about what constitutes abuse/neglect, views about appropriate public or private intervention, and sources of information about such issues

  • Mutually reinforcing “umbrella messages” utilized by many public and private organizations

  • A statewide media clearinghouse to provide information on child maltreatment and its causes that can be used by journalists when high profile maltreatment cases emerge

  • Communications training for child protection professionals to understand concise messages, the role of public opinion, and importance of multiple communication channels

  • Forums for journalists to provide an accurate picture of prevalence of and public attitudes toward child protection and insight into expert debates on policy and practice, and to discuss the impact of patterns of media coverage on public policy

The University of Washington's Human Services Policy Center (UW/HSPC) is conducting the public opinion research, message testing, and evaluation components; two nonprofit service delivery organizations will design and implement the community-based communications. This partnership allows UW/HSPC to maintain a role as evaluator, while taking advantage of the ongoing presence of the service delivery organizations in the pilot communities.

Evaluation Methodology

This project intends to affect multiple audiences, ranging from concerned citizens to professionals who operate key child-serving agencies. The evaluators will combine several different sources of data, a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis, and process and outcome evaluations. The evaluation will also test innovations such as empaneling 30 respondents in each of the three pilot communities and providing them with Internet linkages. The evaluators will gather baseline data from general population telephone surveys, focus groups, and structured interviews with local opinion leaders and legislators representing a range of party affiliations and ideologies. These will help to determine the dynamics of public and policymaker opinions concerning child maltreatment and appropriate public or private intervention for child protection. These data will assist in the planning of communications interventions and will serve as a baseline for measuring impact.

Data from interviews with journalists, samples of reporting in major news venues, tracking of the numbers and types of information requests made of the clearinghouse, and reactions from community panels will be used to track changes in media coverage as a result of forums and clearinghouse information. Annual population surveys, structured interviews with civic leaders and policymakers, and responses from Internet panel respondents will reveal if public and policymaker opinions change as originally intended by selected messages, and whether there are observable changes in state or local public policy as a result of the communications effort.

Interviews with staff of operating partners will indicate how their capacity to communicate through media and such community-based methods as public speaking, posters, and presentations has changed. Indicators will include their reaction to training sessions and ongoing consultation, increases in their communication capacity (including an understanding of key concepts, a familiarity with media and other communication channels, and communications skills) and their technological capacity (fax machines, press lists, Internet access, and brochures). Samples of materials distributed by local leadership groups and by various participating organizations will be analyzed to see whether they incorporate “umbrella message” themes. A review of the sponsorship of media forums and attendance by reporters and editors of print and electronic media will help to determine whether they are reaching the intended audience.

The evaluators expect to publish baseline public opinion data in the fall of 1998 and the results of the initial outcome evaluation in the following year.

Richard N. Brandon
Research Associate Professor and Director
Human Services Policy Center
University of Washington

Andrew Gordon
Graduate School of Public Affairs
University of Washington

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