Q&A with Elizabeth Arledge of Voices for Civil Justice
Voices for Civil Justice is a national communications initiative that taps the awareness-raising power of the media to spotlight the critical role of civil legal aid in assuring fairness for all in the justice system. Elizabeth Arledge serves as its Deputy Director.
Voices for Civil Justice has a new national campaign – All Rise for Civil Justice. Tell us more about the campaign and the impetus behind it.
All Rise for Civil Justice is a communications campaign calling for reform of our civil justice system. America’s civil justice system is in crisis. Courts are overwhelmed with people who are ill-equipped to navigate a complex process created by lawyers for lawyers, assuming people would have a lawyer by their side. If you’re going through the system by yourself, the likelihood that the outcome will be fair is pretty small. The good news is, Voices’ research shows that engaged Americans understand the importance of a civil justice system that’s accessible to everyone and strongly support many of the solutions that the legal aid sector provides. All Rise aims to draw attention to the civil justice crisis, and to spotlight solutions.
Voices has done a lot of research on what messages resonate when it comes to legal aid funding. What’s your number one messaging tip?
Choosing just one is difficult! The strongest messages emphasize shared values, are rooted in lived experience, provide tangible solutions, and end with a clear call to action. Here are a few messaging tips based on Voices’ research:
- The value of equal justice under the law is widely held. Nationally, voters strongly support enhancing access to the civil justice system, whether it’s framed as “legal representation” or “legal help.” (“Assistance” does not test as strongly as “representation” or “help.”)
- Language rooted in real-life experiences your audience can relate to is more engaging and persuasive. For example, “A veteran denied hard-earned benefits” or “A family facing the loss of a home due to job layoff or medical catastrophe.” When you use “a” to bring the experience to the level of an individual, your audience is likely to see in their mind’s eye a specific person, making it harder for them to revert to negative stereotypes. Also, describing a person or a family as “struggling to make ends meet” is more effective than “low-income.”
- Focus on solutions. Your audiences have plenty of things to worry about already, so they don’t want to hear about more problems. Emphasizing solutions is more persuasive than just a litany of what is wrong. Our research found that voters strongly support a range of services in a system that enables everyone to get access to the information and assistance they need, when they need it, and in a form they can use. Among the most popular: simplifying court processes, allowing trained non-lawyers to provide some forms of legal help, offering online tools and other self-help services, and providing screening to guide people to the type of help they need.
It seems like every day more media outlets are cutting staff and scaling back on coverage. How can legal aid organizations effectively get their stories out to the public?
Be strategic and have a plan. “The public” is never your target audience – the key is to identify who you really need to inform and persuade – who has the power to effect the change you seek – and devote your resources to reaching them as effectively as possible. Once you know who you really need to reach, then you can make smart choices about what stories, and what ways of telling them (tactics) are most likely to have the impact you seek. Voices’ training includes communications planning. Our next national training event will be in Chicago, July 24 & 25, in conjunction with the Management Information Exchange (MIE) National Legal Aid Fundraisers Conference.
Finally, are there any major trends you’re seeing around legal aid access and funding?
The civil justice sector has a tradition of innovation, and it’s exciting to see the impact of that trend grow. From tech innovations like those highlighted in a New York Times Fixes article, Legal Aid with a Digital Twist, to knowledge solutions like the Tenant Eviction Response Program in North Carolina, to partnership solutions like the new national Justice in Government Project, legal aid advocates lead the way in devising new ways to expand and support access to civil justice. Not only is that good for the civil justice system, but the media loves a good solution as well.