Values-based Messaging

A message is a clear, compelling short narrative that connects a person’s existing values to an issue. Messages:

  • Give your audience a reason to care about your issue by appealing to their values and addressing their concerns.
  • Describes a threat and suggests who is responsible for the problem.
  • Provides a solution and describes what specific action will help solve the problem.

A message contains the core argument and rationale of a campaign, and frames the language and tone for overall communications. A good message is the starting point for more detailed communications.

The Mississippi River Network’s public opinion research (2007) revealed some insights about how people understand and talk about issues. According to this research, residents of the Mississippi River region generally have the following primary values:

  • Community pride and regional identity; they see the Mississippi River as a national treasure
  • Accountability and fairness when enforce existing laws for pollution cleanup; polluters should be held accountable for their actions
  • Shared responsibility to preserve the River, fish and wildlife
  • Generational legacy and care for families and children; concern that future generations live better than we do

Benefits and Concerns

Nearly all groups surveyed in the public opinion research recognize some benefits from the River. Chief among them are economic benefits from navigation, industry, tourism and agriculture. Therefore, messages should reference economic benefits – especially from increased federal spending in the region – but also note the important role the River plays in the region’s cultural and historic identity and sense of place.

Teach people about the connection between their drinking water and the Mississippi River—few audiences understood this. Therefore, when talking about public health and safety concerns, you will have to educate people that the River is a source of their drinking water first. When talking about threats to the River, talk about threats to “quality of life,” such as toxic pollution, untreated sewage and chemical runoff. When talking about solutions, talk about how the solutions address multiple concerns (e.g. protecting and restoring the River will create jobs, revitalize our Riverfront and attract new business and residents, etc.).  “Use and protect” language appeals to peoples’ needs for both scenic beauty and use of natural resources for practical purposes.

The public audiences identified these benefits of the River and are concerned when these benefits are threatened:

  • Economy and jobs (navigation, industry, farming, tourism)
  • Quality of life (recreation, community events and festivals, family experiences)
  • Sense of place (history and culture)

Saliency and Urgency

Our audiences need to hear messages that emphasize saliency (“Why should I care?”) and urgency. Appealing to our target audience values and concerns will help make the saliency case, especially if you provide examples through human stories. Urgency is a significant hurdle for most environmental campaigns. Use a combination of urgency language (“the longer we wait, the worse the problems will get and the more solutions will cost”) and simple actions that target audiences can take in just a few minutes, like signing a petition, etc. Also to convey urgency, images must be visually striking, vivid and emotional.


Troubles on the Mississippi River aren’t necessarily news. While we must discuss problems, this campaign will only make news by focusing on action and solutions. Emphasize how truly manageable the proposed solutions are (e.g. “We know how to restore wetlands and we know that it works”). Demonstrate the economic benefits of action and the costs of delay. Reference shared responsibility (we all have a role to play) and accountability (maybe we don’t need new regulation; let’s start by enforcing existing laws).  Be positive and celebrate success.

Provide a Simple and Meaningful Action

Be specific about the action you would like your audience to take. For example, rather than asking your audience to reduce polluted runoff from their homes, let them know how they can do it (e.g. bury pet waste, plant with native grasses that thrive without pesticides, etc).  These actions can vary depending on your immediate needs – donations, signing a petition, participating in a meeting or public event, etc – but make sure that the “ask” is simple, meaningful and measurable.

Word Choice

The public opinion research showed that audiences preferred the word “protecting” to “restoring” or “revitalizing.” The latter words were considered to be unrealistic, and the River is already considered to be a vital waterway.

Protect Local Tributaries

Emphasize the need to protect local rivers and tributaries that lead into the Mississippi River. A local river may inspire more passion or concern.

Acknowledge Regional Differences

  • In the lower River (Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi), audiences are more likely to identify with the “Mississippi River region.”
  • Invasive species and overdevelopment are seen as more serious problems in the upper River region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa) than in the lower River.
  • Concerns about flooding are highest in Missouri and Louisiana.
  • In Louisiana, the US Army Corps of Engineers and state and local emergency personnel are seen as less credible messengers than elsewhere in the basin.
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