Let’s start with a basic premise: You like to win. Whether its chess, cards or the communication campaigns you work on, you (like me) probably like to come out on top. Victory is sweet and profitable most of the time; fun damned near all the time.

The bad news: No magic pixie dust guarantees a win. The good news: There’s a framework for controlling the debate in most communications situations. And if you control the debate, you’ll win more often than not.

I learned research and how to use it in PR at the knee of Dr. Gary Lawrence, a longtime pro who did some of then-candidate Ronald Reagan’s key polling. He’s probably learned and forgotten more than I’ll ever know on the subject, but the most valuable thing he ever taught me is this: Know your audiences’ values, frame your issue inside them, and you’ll control the debate.

Do this one thing, and you have to screw up or be massively outspent to lose.

Re-read that: Do this one thing, and you have to screw up or be massively outspent to lose.

Values is a word that’s been devalued (no pun intended) to the point of ridicule — we have family values, community values, corporate values and values too low to advertise, to name just a few. But in when you’re trying to get to what people resonate with and engage with, values are a very specific thing at the foundation of a three-level pyramid that guides people in virtually all the decisions they make:

At the top level are opinions, the myriad thoughts and considerations people have about any subject. Opinions are choppy surface foam in the ocean of thought — constantly changing and subject to review or revision as new information comes along. I like my writing, and that’s an opinion; you may not like it, and that’s an opinion, too.

At the next level of thought are attitudes. More strongly held than opinions, the attitude level is where debate about many big-picture issues stalls in policymaking and the press. Attitudes are less subject to change than opinions, but can be changed over time by providing credible arguments that appeal to deeper values (see below). Continuing the self-indulgent metaphor: Attitudes about blogging could be the concepts of personal and professional expression.

Forming the bedrock of opinions and attitudes are values — the sum total of our hopes, needs, fears and dreams. Values are instilled in us at an early age and remain unchanged except through the most major of events, personal upheavals or societal change. Because they are so basic to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, values are shared across broad socioeconomic ranges

The content on this site is rooted in the values of knowledge and creativity. We could debate the pros and cons of the site, and probably even attitudes about it, but you’re going to have a tougher time finding people from the anti-knowledge and anti-creativity lobbies. That’s a characteristic of values: Because they are so basic, they tend to have wide acceptance and that’s what makes them so powerful when you’re trying to get traction for your issue.

So if values-based communications strategies work so well, why don’t we use them more? One reason is that otherwise well-intentioned people can’t help but muck with a stated value — they try to add things onto it, refine it to make it appeal to a particular group or otherwise wordsmith it to death.

I see this a lot in nonprofit and public-sector messaging, where simple, one- or two-word values clearly identified through qualitative and quantitative research get turned into paragraph-long statements by stakeholder committees or other privileged participants. That’s a shame, because a good rule of thumb is that if your value needs a sentence (or a paragraph!) to explain, then it isn’t broad enough.

Figuring out your target audiences values isn’t hard and doesn’t take much time or money. Focus groups, if done correctly can get you most of the way there. And the good news is: When you’re hitching your wagon to peoples bedrock values, you’ll know right away whether you’re on track or not — the audience will let you know.

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