Shifting attitudes to welfare: why knowing your audience is key to any campaign strategy

This is the second in a series of blogs talking about Shelter’s campaign to change public attitudes towards welfare.

Back in November I wrote a blog about Shelter’s campaign to shift public attitudes to welfare. This is the next stage of the campaign so far:

From a political point of view Jam is definitely the flavour of the day. The ‘just about managing’ audience, constantly referenced in speeches and articles by the government and political commentators alike, have become increasingly key to unlocking the door of electoral success in 2020. Communications are carefully crafted to show empathy for their situation and policy is geared to woo them.

This shows just why it’s so important to get the audience right for any campaign and why communications, that demonstrate an understanding of their situation, are key.

Working in campaigns it can be all too easy to get caught up in an echo chamber. There’s a certain reassurance when we hear what we want to hear from friends, colleagues and supporters. But working at the sharp end of the housing crisis every day, including via Shelter’s amazing services, can blind us to how people who aren’t touched by the issue in the same way see it.

Finding the common ground that brings us together with people outside our echo chamber is vital to an effective communications strategy. With this in mind it’s important for us to work closely with our selected audience and develop a narrative that will work for them.

Research carried out for us by TNS shows that many people see benefit recipients in two polarised groups; the ‘deserving’ – a small group of vulnerable people who should get support e.g. the elderly and the disabled. And the ‘undeserving’ – a much bigger group (they believe) of people who are adept at playing the system and getting away with it.

However, the people between the two extremes – for example people working in insecure low paid jobs; lone parents; and people suffering the consequences of finding jobs where opportunities are lacking – are much less present in people’s view of benefit claimants.

Hierarchy of deservingness showing the True Face of a Benefit Recipient (TNS Research)


By highlighting these people – and showing that benefits are a normal part of everyday life, our campaign aims to draw our audience closer to the true face of a benefit recipient and away from the divisive opposites of deserving and undeserving.

The politically salient audience we’re trying to win over with our welfare campaign can be defined as low to middle income starting out families; some of them are Jams, some are better off. They’re between the ages of 25 and 45, many will have claimed benefits at some point or know someone who has.

Our goal isn’t to get this audience to become cheerleaders for welfare – that’s simply never going to happen – for now we just want them to accept that welfare, despite its faults, is necessary and to cut it will affect too many people; people just like them.

As part of our narrative development we’ve had to face up to some uncomfortable truths, forcing us to confront things we’ll probably never hear from the safety of our echo chamber. This gives us a starting point; rather than discounting people’s views as simply wrong we join them where they are and accept that the system isn’t perfect.

But obviously we want to move people on from this view and talk about how the system could be improved. This is why it’s essential to find the values that unite people; the positives they can generally agree on.

So firstly, there’s a belief that welfare, in principle, is a good thing. This is an important counterbalance to some of the negativity around a system that people believe is broken and open to abuse.

Then there’s a collective pride in ‘our’ welfare state, something nearly all of our focus group participants agreed on.

Finally, there’s the belief that welfare should be a stepping stone rather than a crutch – benefits don’t have to be a break on ambition. This needs to be handled carefully because for some, welfare isn’t a short term fix but, through circumstances, is a longer term need and we don’t want to harden attitudes against people who cannot work for long periods of time.

In this ‘post truth’, anti-expert era, trust in business as usual politics has eroded away. And that is a big risk for campaigning charities. That is why it’s more important than ever to understand (for better or for worse) the audiences that matter most and to communicate with them in a way that shows we’ve understood their concerns.

We’re currently running a pilot of the campaign in the Midlands, testing creative which brings our narrative to life . I’ll be updating the blog with results later in the spring.