The Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, signed into law in January 2021 by Governor J.B. Pritzker, enacts extensive reform impacting many areas of the state’s criminal justice…
The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that provides no-cost bail assistance and pretrial support services for low-income individuals, has proven unusually successful at delivering persuasive messages across political lines, even in an increasingly polarized climate. Using Civis Analytics’ Creative Focus online testing tool to gauge the persuasiveness of its bail reform messages, The Bail Project determined that economic-themed messaging was most successful at increasing support for legislation eliminating America’s cash bail system, while messages spotlighting cash’s moral toll proved most effective for driving donations to its cause.
Civis Analytics spoke to Camilo Ramirez, The Bail Project’s chief communications officer, for a deep-dive conversation exploring how the organization connects with audiences on both sides of the bail reform debate. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Read Part 1, which addresses the importance of building a shared understanding of hot-button topics, how to find this common ground, and the different frames through which people interpret the issues affecting their lives:
Civis: You’ve shared many lessons about communicating bail reform messages to different audiences. Can these lessons be applied to other issues and audiences as well?
Ramirez: Certainly. One simple lesson is active listening. It’s the best way to guard against projecting onto audiences what we think you know about them. Listening — be it through focus groups, surveys, and even everyday conversations on the topic — trains you to question and test your own assumptions, clearing the way for new ideas.
Listening gives you insights into how to establish a common ground, rather than getting sucked into an “us vs. them” approach, which might be good for rallying the troops but less conducive to persuasion and moving the needle of public discourse in the right direction. This applies to so many issues, from climate change to reproductive rights. As disagreements get more heated, it is easy to fall in the trap of demonizing the other side and assigning motives. Unfortunately, social media tends to exacerbate these tendencies.
I always think about what it’s like to have a debate about climate change policies on social media vs. striking up a conversation with someone of the opposite political party while at a campground in a national park. In the latter example, a shared value is responsible for crossing our paths. I can build on that. If we put ourselves in spaces where we can have actual conversations and listen to people, you’re going to see that while we disagree on some very important things, we also have a lot in common. And in my experience, most people do not fall in the extremes. I think of conversations about reproductive rights. I’ve spoken with militant pro-choice people and militant pro-life people, and most of them are not on the extremes when it comes to thinking about the complexities of the issue. They understand there are exceptions, they understand there’s a spectrum of scenarios, but these commonalities don’t usually make it into the conversation as you see it in the media.
If your job is to communicate these issues in a way that brings people together to achieve change, ultimately, you’ll have a better strategy — a better chance of success — by focusing on how to find common ground and build a shared understanding from there.
Civis: What is the path forward for The Bail Project, and what are the biggest challenges you face?
Ramirez: The biggest challenge is the stream of misinformation about how the bail system works, its purpose, and what would happen if you took money out of the justice process. So we have to continue educating the public about the criminal justice system, telling stories that humanize the issue, and demonstrating that there is a better way. The path forward is to stay focused on how to best reach our audiences with messages that clarify the issue, and to continue testing and experimenting with language, framing, and storytelling.
Civis: There are so many talking points from the opposite side, and so much disinformation. How do you navigate around the noise?
Ramirez: With clear messages that show what is at stake in indisputable terms and positive framing that shows a path to something better. It takes a diversified approach and lots of repetition.
At The Bail Project, we don’t rely on a single communications strategy, but a combination. Take storytelling, for example. It is very effective in humanizing an issue and forging an emotional connection to the cause, but it can also turn into an episodic form of messaging that doesn’t deepen the public’s understanding of the broader issues. You must also use strategies that enhance systems thinking to get under the often-twisted narrative of personal responsibility.
Similarly, facts and data are critical to cut through the noise. The Bail Project has an entire division dedicated to data analysis. We believe in evidence-based policymaking. But facts and data without proper framing and narrative tissue fall on deaf ears. You must couple data with narrative, metaphor, and explanatory logics for making sense of the issues in a new way.