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Expanding Civil Legal Aid: Strategies for Branding and Communications Analysis of Findings from a 2013 Nationwide Study of Public Opinion Commissioned by for the Civil Legal Aid Communications Hub
Overview Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group recently completed for the Public Welfare and Kresgefoundations public opinion research on expanding Civil Legal Aid. One of the central aims of this study was to aid in the development of a comprehensive communications strategy that increases awareness of, and support for, Civil Legal Aid. We also measured opinion toward increasing government funding of Civil Legal Aid. The study examined the full ecosystem of Civil Legal Aid—including relevant institutions, program components, messages, and actors. Through this process, the research also uncovered broader societal themes about how the public perceives the judicial system, the values they want to reflect in the justice system, as well as their own sense of vulnerability in contemporary America. The research, which included exploratory focus groups and a subsequent nationwide survey, reveals insights about framing, messages, and specific language to use and to avoid, including some preliminary insights into how best to articulate both the populations served, and the services provided, by Civil Legal Aid. This research is an expansion on research conducted by Belden, Russonello, and Stewart in 2000. 4
Phase One Methodology: Focus Groups 5 • Four focus groups were designed, conducted, and moderated by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group. The focus groups consisted of: • white women in Richmond, VA; • mixed-gender African Americans in Richmond, VA; • white women in Riverside, CA; and • white men in Riverside, CA • In addition to demographic homogeneity within each focus group, all participants were screened to ensure they were they neither strong opponents nor strong supporters of Civil Legal Aid. • The focus groups in Richmond were conducted March 4th, 2013, and focus groups in Riverside were conducted March 7th, 2013.
Phase Two Methodology: Nationwide Survey • Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group designed and administered this survey, which was conducted by phone using professional interviewers. The survey reached a total of 801 likely 2016 voters nationwide. The survey was conducted May 30th – June 5th, 2013. • The sample of likely voters was chosen because their opinions can often have a disproportionate influence on elected officials and major stakeholders. At the same time, the opinions of likely voters often closely reflect the attitudes of the public at large. • Telephone numbers for the survey were drawn using a file of registered voters. The sample was stratified geographically to reflect the expected turnout of general election voters in 2016. Data were weighted to match expected turnout by gender, party identification, education, age, marital status, race, and region. The margin of error for the 95% confidence level of the survey is +/-3.46%. • In interpreting survey results, all sample surveys are subject to possible sampling error; that is, the results of a survey may differ from those that would be obtained if the entire population were interviewed. The size of the sampling error depends upon both the total number of respondents in the survey and the percentage distribution of responses to a particular question. For example, if 50% of respondents in the total sample answered “yes” to a particular question, we can be 95% confident that the true percentage will fall within +/-3.46 percentage points of this percentage or between 46.4% and 53.46%. 6
Building on Lessons from Previous Research • This effort builds on previous research conducted in 2000 by Belden, Russonello, and Stewart. Similar to what the researchers found in that study, Civil Legal Aid remains a largely invisible issue for the American public. More than one-third (36%) have never heard or have no opinion toward Civil Legal Aid - an improvement from 2000, when 49% were unaware of Civil Legal Aid services. However, while current survey data reveals positive general impressions of the term “Civil Legal Aid”, the qualitative (focus groups) research highlights just how shallow those impressions are. Most participants were unaware of any type of government funded services for civil legal purposes. • However, despite the public’s lack of familiarity with Civil Legal Aid, over eight-in-ten (82%) voters support the basic principle behind Civil Legal Aid: that all Americans should have access to legal representation or help in civil matters, regardless of how much money you have. • In addition to updating the research on public perceptions of Civil Legal Aid, this study explored two new fronts: support for increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid and reactions to arguments for and against increasing funding for the program. • While the previous research assessed support for existing levels of public funding for Civil Legal Aid programs, this effort explored the public’s appetite for increasing funding for the program—a more difficult threshold, to be sure, in the current economic environment, and given voters’ tax-sensitivity and skepticism of government-funded and -operated programs. Even so, the results of this question are quite promising, with nearly half of voters in support of increased funding, and a majority supports increased funding after being exposed to arguments in favor of—and against—this proposition. • As noted above, this study also examined various arguments related to increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid, as well as the most effective thematic frame for positioning this debate. The findings from this work should help inform advocates’ proactive communications strategy as well as inoculate against potential attacks, barriers, or resistance. • In contrast to previous recommendations, this study suggests that, with limited time to convey an argument, and after stating the core value that fairness in the justice system should not depend on how much money a person has, it is more important to outline some of the specific services provided by Civil Legal Aid rather than detailing the populations that receive those services. Times have also changed, and in much of our work we are finding less resonance with the idea of helping the “vulnerable” since voters believe they have to go no further than their kitchen table to find people who need help. 8
The Public Opinion Context for the Debate Over Civil Legal Aid • The debate over increased funding for Civil Legal Aid is informed by two competing trends in public opinion, each of which has been building for several years now, and which give rise to a set of complex and at times contradictory attitudes. • On one hand is the public’s diminished faith in government to manage public affairs wisely or efficiently. On the other hand, is a profound sense of economic insecurity, and a growing belief that the rules of the game have fundamentally changed—to the detriment of ordinary Americans. • Civil Legal Aid advocates have a tremendous opportunity to frame the debate over increased public support for the program—in the context of these twin “tsunamis” of public opinion and without being overtaken by either. The research uncovers some important caveats, however. • While the public believes it is important—in fact, critical—to have access to legal expertise in order to navigate the complexities of the civil justice system, they are largely unfamiliar with that systemand have many fewer associations with it than with the criminal justice system. • The debate over support for Civil Legal Aid remains far from the public consciousness today; in this regard, the debate has not matured substantially over the past decade. Making Civil Legal Aid more relevant by tapping into broadly-held values, specifically the public’s desire for fairness in the justice system, is vital. In an engaged debate, we win, but at this moment, the issue of Civil Legal Aid is fairly unknown. • The reality of our cluttered communications environment today is such that the “thirty-second sound-bite” has been whittled down to roughly 9-Seconds. While this reality does not obviate the need for more detailed arguments, advocates must be able to convey in a single sentence a values-oriented message about the need, and broad-based benefits, of Civil Legal Aid. 9
Gaining Support for Increased Funding of Civil Legal Aid • Voters are open to increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid, which is no small feat in a spending and tax sensitive environment and given the program’s relatively low profile today. A plurality (45%) of voters initially support increasing funding for Civil Legal Aid while one-quarter (24%) is undecided and another nearly one-in-three (29%) oppose the program. • Support for increased funding crosses the 50% threshold in the context of a simulated debate – with opponents characterizing Civil Legal Aid as costly, ineffective, and ripe for abuse, and advocates defining the program—and the debate—around the value of assuring fairness for all in the justice system. Crossing the 50% threshold is typically considered a necessary benchmark for elected officials to feel safe throwing their support behind a cause. • We have outlined two priorities to gain support for increased funding of Civil Legal Aid: • We need to shore up support among our base and generate greater enthusiasm among advocates of Civil Legal Aid. These voters strongly support our program even after they hear negative attacks against us. They tend to be Democrats, voters of color, unmarried voters, women under 50, and voters in the Northeast. They respond best to arguments that revolve around fairness and equality. • We need to educate and convert undecided voters. These voters are largely unfamiliar with Civil Legal Aid, but move toward supporting increased funding after learning basic information about the program and our message of assuring fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. They tend to be white, independents, older, non-college educated, and are more concentrated in the South and the West. • Those who oppose the program tend to have higher sensitivities than other voters when it comes to spending and taxes. We may never win their support, but we do not need it to be successful. More important, the opposition gains fairly little traction over the course of the survey; in fact, there is no point in the survey at which opponents outnumber supporters. 10
Branding Civil Legal Aid and Connecting on Values 11 • Several fundamental questions presented themselves at the inception of this study: How should advocates refer to the program? What value(s) best define the work being done by Civil Legal Aid? What services are seen as the most valuable—while simultaneously allaying concerns over cost and accessibility? • Refer to the program as Civil Legal Aid. This term elicits the most positive reactions from voters and is the most recognized. While the term alone is not a substitute for a message, it provides a foundation on which to build: • People have a positive impression of the term (57% favorable, just 7% unfavorable) and it emerges at the top of the pack of several options, in both closed-ended and open-ended formats. • ‘Aid’ resonates more strongly than other terms, such as ‘assistance’ and ‘services’, because it evokes the value of help without pigeon-holing those receiving the help or priming negative connotations of exorbitant costs borne, but not enjoyed, by middle-class taxpayers (‘Aid’ receives 25% support compared to 19% for ‘assistance’ and 17% for ‘services’). • Connect Civil Legal Aid to the value of fairness, specifically assuring fairness for all in the justice system. Fairness is the value most associated with Civil Legal Aid—whether through access to representation or leveling the playing field. Self-empowerment and protection from harm are secondary dimensions that communications can evoke. • Focus on services provided over populations served. The services voters most prioritize focus on making access to quality and accurate information easier (such as easy-to-understand forms, legal assistance, and legal representation), and self-help centers so that people can know their rights. Streamlining the court system and reducing court costs also work on a secondary level. However, when describing services, we need to differentiate which services are available to all and which are income-based. We do not want to promise services to all when not everyone qualifies for them. • While not the primary focus, specific groups who benefit from Civil Legal Aid can be highlighted in longer-form communications, including children, veterans, seniors, the ill and disabled, and victims of domestic violence—while still positioning the program in the broadest possible terms.
The 9-Second Sound-Bite: Raising Awareness and Priming Key Values • Public education efforts will be key to raising awareness of Civil Legal Aid. Indeed, once voters are familiar with Civil Legal Aid, they are more likely to support increased funding of the program. However, advocates cannot teach every voter every thing about Civil Legal Aid, nor should they try. • Some people are more likely to be supportive than others. In addition, in today’s increasingly cluttered communications environment, successful messages often occupy a span of no more than 9-Seconds—or a brief, single sentence. As such, advocates must employ a targeted communications strategy and exercise strict discipline and repetition in conveying their message. • To make such an effort successful, advocates must first connect with, and frame Civil Legal Aid within, an existing set of broadly-held values before delving into the specifics of the program. • The value voters most associate with Civil Legal Aid is fairness and the most persuasive arguments in favor of Civil Legal Aid operate on the theme of 1) ensuring fair play in a system that seems complex and stacked against ordinary Americans and 2) making sure all Americans receive fairness in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. • This idea of ensuring that everyone is on a level playing field surfaced repeatedly throughout the focus groups. The program’s connection with the value of fairness is similar to findings from previous research. • The research also examined the effectiveness of cost-based messages, which tended to perform better in the focus groups than in the survey. Nevertheless, including the cost-savings of Civil Legal Aid in any broader, longer-form communications is advised, as it can help assuage voters’ existing concerns and also mitigate the power of any attacks on the program. It can also be more important to certain elite audiences like state legislators. 12
How To Talk About Civil Legal Aid: The 9-Second Sound-Bite The 9-Second Sound-Bite: What to Highlight Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. Our Program Is Civil Legal Aid We Assure Fairness for all in the Justice System 13
The 2-Minute Message: Expanding from Values to Services • While 9-second sound-bites are the main currency in today’s world, that in no way eliminates the need for a more nuanced message in support of Civil Legal Aid (the following page includes recommendations for a 2-minute sound-bite). • For the 2-minute sound-bite, we recommend talking about a few specific services provided rather than key populations that receive Civil Legal Aid.This goes against recommendations from previous research. With limited time, it is more important that voters understand what Civil Legal Aid provides rather than to whom those services are made available. • To highlight the best examples of what Civil Legal Aid does, showcase services that increase ease of access to information and assistance so that people can know their rights. However, we will need to distinguish differences between what is available to everyone, especially the middle-class, and those who qualify for all of the programs based on their income.We tested a wide range of services and these three received the most support): • Provide easy-to-understand forms, including online forms, that people can use in civil legal proceedings; • Provide legal assistance, including legal self-help centers, so people can know their rights; and • Provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it—because justice should not depend on how much money you have. • These services, as described above, are perceived as broadly accessible and, beyond operating on the dimension of fairness, also evoke another key value: self-empowerment. 14
How To Talk About Civil Legal Aid: The 2-Minute Sound-Bite The 2-Minute Sound-Bite:builds on the 9-second sound-bite with additional information on services provided Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil Legal Aid makes it easier to access information—whether through easy-to-understand forms, including online forms; legal assistance or representation; and legal self-help centers—so people can know their rights. Civil Legal Aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance we close with “justice for all.” We need programs like Civil Legal Aid to ensure that the very principle our founding fathers envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it. What to Highlight Our Program Is Civil Legal Aid We Assure Fairness for All in the Justice System, Not the Few Who Can Afford It Our Services Increase Ease of Access to Information and Assistance to Know Your Rights 15
Voters’ Key Concerns and How to Respond to Them • There are two major concerns among voters about increased funding for Civil Legal Aid: • 1) That the middle-class is left out of the program while footing the bill • 2) That the program is open to abuse by those who would needlessly take advantage of and over-burden it • Middle-class voters are especially sensitive about increasing funding for public programs from which they are excluded . That is especially acute here since people can imagine needing these services themselves and think it is “unfair” to be disqualified based on their income. Many participants in the focus groups expressed a desire to be able to enjoy the benefits of Civil Legal Aid. When assuaging this concern that middle-class voters are excluded, we should make distinctions about what specific services they can access such as online forms and information and self-help centers to name a few. • One possible response to this concern would be to make the program available to all on a sliding scale basis. This idea attracts much higher support than a proposal to simply increase funding for Civil Legal Aid. • As one method of assuaging these concerns, our positive positioning is designed to inoculate against attacks—particularly on cost and limited access. The program should be described in the broadest possible way and along dimensions of economic fairness. In addition, the services identified are, for the most part, those that sound both effective and economical. We have provided recommended responses on the following two pages. • Again, while we do not recommend using population groups in the short sound-bites, they can be effective in longer responses as well as in responding to attacks. The best examples of the types of people who receive Civil Legal Aid (in no particular order) include children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and women who are victims of domestic violence. These examples are more powerful than housing or consumer issues, where voters believe there may be other remedies. • Two possible attacks were tested, neither of which resonates with voters: one, that Civil Legal Aid will be a burden to taxpayers and will increase the national debt; and two, that we can fix the lack of funding by getting more pro-bono lawyers. 16
Responding to the Attack that the Middle-Class is Excluded* (This attack raises doubts for 59% of respondents; 30% serious doubts) RESPONSE: Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. The program serves Americans of all backgrounds and ages, including families, children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and women who are victims of domestic violence. Civil Legal Aid provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. It provides access to legal aid self-help centers, makes it easier to access information through easy-to-understand forms and online information, and provides legal assistance so people can know their rights. Civil Legal Aid assures fairness in the justice system that all Americans deserve. *Full text of attack is on slide 64 in full details of the research section 17
*We tested two separate messages in this research but they can easily be combined by our opponents(Abuse raises doubts for 58% of respondents, 33% serious doubts; Tax sensitivity raises doubts for 57% of respondents, 31 % serious doubts) Responding to the Attack that Civil Legal Aid is Ripe for Abuse of Tax Dollars RESPONSE: Civil Legal Aid is part of the solution, not the problem. Civil Legal Aid assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. The program serves Americans of all backgrounds and ages, including families, children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and women who are victims of domestic violence. Civil Legal Aid provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. It provides access to legal aid self-help centers, makes it easier to access information through easy-to-understand forms and online information, and provides legal assistance so people can know their rights. Civil Legal Aid provides expert legal advice, mediation, negotiation, and problem-solving techniques that streamline the court system, reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits, cut down on court costs and staff overtime, and save us all money. *Full text of attack is on slide 64 in full details of the research section 18
The Do’s and Don’ts of Messaging Civil Legal Aid When Talking About Values… DO: Talk about assuring fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have. Equality, justice for all, fair treatment, and self-empowerment are also effective. DON’T: Talk about opportunity or accountability in the justice system. People do not fully understand the association of these ideas values with Civil Legal Aid. When Talking About Services… • DO: • Talk about services that increase ease of access to information and assistance so that people can know their rights - easy-to-understand forms, legal assistance so people can know their rights, and legal representation to those who cannot afford it (examples shortened). DON’T: Get stuck talking about the ins and outs of the program. People will be overwhelmed by the amount of services provided and will lose interest. They do not want to hear about services that do not help all Americans. When Talking About Population Groups… DO: Talk about families, children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and women who are victims of domestic violence. They put a face to the attacks that may come our way. DON’T: Talk about people seeking remedies for housing or consumer disputes. Voters tend to think there are other options for those groups. Any discussion of immigrants receiving help turns voters off. 19
Contact Information Lake Research Partners LakeResearch.com 202.776.9066 Celinda Lake email@example.com Daniel Gotoff firstname.lastname@example.org Kristy Pultorak email@example.com The Tarrance Group Tarrance.com 703.684.6688 Brian Nienaber firstname.lastname@example.org