This memo lays out a foundation for communicating about the importance of paid family and medical leave policies for all types and shapes of families. While the recommendations here are based on both qualitative and quantitative research completed in 2019, the current COVID-19 crisis lays bare as never before the need for powerful narratives in support of these policies. The memo builds on a range of additional communications best practices garnered from both research and the experience of communications experts and family support advocates from across the country.
It is our hope that the guidance and research presented here help to bolster an already robust field of advocates and activists working on behalf of paid family and medical leave policies so that they might tell a unified story about leave that conveys the urgency of passing federal paid leave legislation that supports all families.
The Power of Narrative
A narrative is a Big Story, rooted in shared values and themes, that influences how people process information and make decisions. Overarching organizing stories help us make sense of the social and political world. Through narratives, seemingly unconnected events are organized into a whole and given meaning. Repetition and time are key to the narrative process.
Narratives play an important role in not only shaping our understanding of the world but also establishing and affirming our relationship to one another, institutions, and society. As such, narratives often reflect particular sets of cultural values that, in turn, establish social norms, systems, and structures. While many narratives can play an important social function, dominant narratives often reflect the interests and values of those in positions of power.
To shift, counter, and replace dominant narratives, it’s crucial that movement organizers work together to identify common messaging elements for amplifying. In this way, we can begin to undermine harmful narratives and replace them with stories that promote opportunity and equity, among other important values.
It’s also crucial that narratives and related messaging are rooted in research. In this case, we collaborated with Lake Research Partners, who conducted six focus groups in May 2019 and a national online survey in October 2019. Research methodology can be found at the end of this memo.
Building a Narrative
Experience and research suggest that successful narratives share a few common elements. They should:
- Lead with shared values
- Describe problems, but also point audiences toward clear solutions
- Be informed by public opinion research, media analysis, communications practice, and collective experience
- Adapt to key audiences, spokespeople, sub-issues, and circumstances
- Support a coherent “drumbeat” of stories, messages, and events—both short and long term
Elements of a Paid Family and Medical Leave Narrative
Vision: A country that values families of all types and puts in place the support programs they need to survive and thrive. This means, for instance, making sure everyone can be with their loved ones in times of family need and still earn an income—no exceptions. A country where everyone, no matter what they look like or where they come from, can contribute to our economy and society and still be there for their families and attend to their own health and wellness.
Heroes: Families of all kinds who shouldn’t have to risk their financial stability to be there for each other. Innovative programs like paid family and medical leave policies that support this.
It’s important to center families in this discussion, and individual stories can be a powerful way to put a human face on the issue. We should do this by always connecting individual stories to the broader systemic solution to paint a picture of exactly how paid family and medical leave would change that particular story and our shared story.
If we spend too much time focused on individuals, there is a danger that audiences either only relate to that individual problem or imagine the solutions to it (“Doesn’t she have a neighbor who can help?”) or judge the individual circumstance (“He should have a better job.”). By showing that this issue affects many people and by consistently drawing a line to the systemic solution, which is a central hero to the story, we can make sure that we keep audience’s focus on our shared responsibility to make this happen.
Villains: Certain lawmakers and corporate lobbyists who say they support paid leave but promote plans that exclude the vast majority of caregivers and often guarantee neither pay nor leave while weakening key safety net programs families need. Their proposals force those who would be eligible to choose between their present needs and the future economic stability of their families.
Note that for long-term narrative purposes, it is not necessarily helpful to indicate that people are immutable or naturally “bad.” It’s also true that, although drawing clear lines between what we are proposing vs. the opposition’s plans and motivations is crucial, many persuadable audiences see too much of this as partisan bickering. It’s a careful balance in ensuring that we have drawn distinctions while also giving persuadables a “side” that they’re interested in taking instead of dismissing all arguments as just politics.
Implication/Moral: When families of all kinds have the support they need through a range of programs like paid family and medical leave, they have the opportunity to thrive, which improves the overall health and sustainability of our economy and society. Denying people leave puts families at risk and forces people to choose between being there for their families and providing for their families.
Values: Family, opportunity, financial security, equity, fairness
Familiar Themes/Metaphors: Health metaphors, linking physical health to economic health. Lack of paid family and medical leave is “breaking families’ backs and banks.”
Building a Message
To introduce people to a new way of thinking about an issue like paid family and medical leave, it’s important to carefully consider the structure of our messages—particularly how they begin. People think in shortcuts and once we’ve activated a familiar shortcut, they are likely to process all future information through the lens of that shortcut. If we start with vision and values and fit the importance of the programs we want into that framework, many audiences will find themselves more open to the rest of our points. To this end, we suggest you build messages using the following structure:
Values, Problem, Solution, Action
Values. Starting with shared values helps audiences to “hear” our messages more effectively than using dry facts or emotional rhetoric.
- One of the values we hold dear is being there for our families. Family comes first.
- When a family member is sick or a loved one needs help, we will do whatever is needed to ensure they get the care they need.
- Everyone should enjoy full and equal opportunity.
- The key to full and fair opportunity is the ability to work while maintaining a safe and healthy life for one’s children and family.
- No matter what we look like, where we come from, or what kind of families we live in, most of us agree that we are all trying to provide for our families.
- Time is a precious resource.
Problem. Frame problems as a threat to our vision and values. Underscore our connections to one another and why this problem matters to everyone.
Not only do people face barriers to accessing health care, many of those who have access can't afford to take unpaid time from work to have the space to take care of themselves and their families.
Right now, people are paying the cost through lost wages or even lost jobs because we don't have a national paid family and medical leave program.
Working people and families in the United States lose nearly $22.5 billion annually in lost wages because they can't access paid family and medical leave.
Lower-income people are less likely than higher-income people to have paid family and medical leave. Just 4% of lower-wage workers have access to paid family leave, compared to 31% of the highest wage workers. The majority of us don’t have even $1,000 to cover a medical emergency.
Employers are not required to provide even unpaid leave to care for an unmarried same-sex partner.
- No one should keep you from a spouse battling cancer, a parent nearing their final days, or a new baby needing attention.
- Too many Americans can’t make ends meet or can’t miss a paycheck.
- Those with the fewest resources are the hardest hit and can’t get the benefits they need.
- For most Americans, taking time from work is something they simply can't afford.
- People are forced to choose between caring for sick family members and earning the salary needed to support their families.
- You should not have to risk losing your job or paycheck because you are providing care.
- Taking care of the people you love shouldn’t force you to choose between working to support your family and losing pay and benefits.
- No one should have to choose between a paycheck and being there for their family.
- No one should have to choose between their life and their livelihood.
Solution. In our efforts to point out problems, we often spend less time promoting solutions. This can result in crisis fatigue among key audiences. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation.
What is the commonsense approach to the problem you have outlined? Find ways to frame the solution as both the most common sense and the most in line with our values.
Assign responsibility—Who can enact this solution? It’s particularly important to outline government’s role in this solution: to administer and enforce the solution but not pay directly for it.
- We need to share those costs, so we can all thrive.
- We need a law that guarantees all workers can be with their loved ones AND earn a living–no exceptions; no matter where we work; and regardless of whether we are white, black, or brown.
- We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economy and society.
- Families need updated workplace standards to help meet their responsibilities.
- We must join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, in the same way we won better wages.
- We can create a program that works for all of us, no matter where we work, not just for the lucky few.
- We can promote health equity and reduce struggles for families by improving the health and well-being of all Americans.
Descriptions of the Solution
The federal policy we’re organizing for is known as the FAMILY Act. Sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, it would pool small contributions from employers and employees to provide up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to bond with a new child, deal with a serious personal or family illness, or handle needs that arise from a military deployment. The length of leave pales in comparison to what’s offered by many companies and virtually all industrialized countries. Although basic, it is also bold and transformative, the first new social insurance program in the United States since the New Deal.
Enacting paid family and medical leave in the United States will begin to value caregiving and reverse centuries of inequity based on forced and devalued care provided by women and people of color. Paid leave will make it possible for people—regardless of gender—to cherish the first months of a child’s life and enrich the last months of a beloved parent’s life; to heal and thrive from their own injury or illness; and to spur the recovery or ease the suffering of a loved one. No more having to abandon a preemie in the NICU; no more chemo on your lunch break; no more teenagers quitting school to take a job at McDonald’s because a parent got fired for having leukemia. Meaningful paid leave in the United States will be a vital part of eradicating poverty and boosting family stability. And it will make businesses more robust by reducing turnover and increasing consumer solvency.
Paid leave plans have been in operation in four states and passed in five more. They guarantee workers paid time for the full range of care purposes. Each one builds on the ones before—mostly with bipartisan support—to create inclusive, effective programs. They have adequate and progressive wage replacement so that those who earn the least get most or all of their wages during leave. They ensure those workers are able to return to their same or a similar job after their leave. And they have an inclusive definition of family.
Action. While the solution points out the overarching policy or program ask, the action is an audience-specific way to spur action. In this case, point people toward the decisionmakers who need to act to pass the FAMILY Act, as well as those who influence them.
Highest Rated VPSA Messages from Online Survey
No matter what we look like, where we come from, or what kind of families we live in, most of us believe that we are all trying to provide for our families. But today, certain politicians and their lobbyists hurt everyone by failing to pass a national paid family and medical leave program. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can create a program that works for all of us, no matter where we work, not just the lucky few.
Time is a precious resource, and for most Americans taking time off is something they simply can't afford. As of 2019, only 19% of people had access to paid leave through their employer. Often, those with the fewest resources are the hardest hit and can’t get the benefits associated with family leave, including the ability to nurture newborn or adopted children or to take care of their own serious illness or injury. This is particularly true for low-income families and people of color. Black and Latino people are twice as likely to report needing leave but not being able to take it. A universal paid family and medical leave program would promote health equity and reduce struggles for families by improving the health and well-being for all Americans, regardless of income and race.
One of the values we hold dear is being there for our family. No one should keep you from a spouse battling cancer, a parent nearing their final days, or a new baby needing attention. You should not have to risk losing your job or paycheck because you are providing care. Too many Americans can’t make ends meet and can't afford to take time off to care for themselves or their family. That’s why we need a program that guarantees you can be with your loved ones and still earn a living while you do it.
When a family member is sick or a loved one needs help, we will do whatever is needed to ensure they get the care they need. However, too many people in this country can’t miss a paycheck in order to care for themselves or their families without the risk of economic hardship or even financial ruin. Taking care of the people you love shouldn’t force you to choose between working to support your family and losing pay and benefits when you take time to care for them. That’s why we need a law that guarantees all workers can be with their loved ones AND earn a living—no exceptions.
Family comes first, but today too many people are forced to part with their babies, parents, or spouses when they need care. Our nation should be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity, no matter where they work and whether they are white, black, or brown. We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economy and society. When everyone has paid time to care for themselves or their families in times of need, the benefits flow to individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole.
 Lake Research Partners Paid Family and Medical Leave: Findings based on Focus Groups and a National Survey. November 2019
 Family Values @ Work. Paid Leave: Bold, Urgent and Within Our Reach, May 10, 2019. https://medium.com/@FmlyValuesWork/paid-leave-bold-urgent-and-within-our-reach-339518fb99
 ggrado. Don’t Rob Paulette to Pay Paulette—Work Need Paid Leave, Not Loans, January 8, 2020. https://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2020/01/08/dont-rob-paulette-to-pay-paulette-workers-need-paid-leave-not-loans/