Culture, confidence, and a matter of messaging

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Culture and confidence.

In all walks of life, how much comes down to those two very big words?  We are shaped by our culture and take action based on the level of confidence we have in our leaders and ourselves; and boiling things down, these realities serve as the basis for media and messaging.  The business of public relations and advertising strives to put language into cultural context and —  in the best case scenario — to inspire audiences to action.

This is as true for advocacy initiatives as it is for the business environment, and it was a major takeaway from last week’s Indiana Forum on Financial Access to Higher Education.  [Note: we aren’t based in Indiana.  But we have been exposed in large doses to this cause after years of working with clients on the advocacy front to improve the general public’s ability to afford higher education.]

The statistics are numerous and paint a daunting picture…Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock captures it best:  by 2018, U.S. retirees will be better educated than its workforce.  For the first time in the nation’s history, we’ll actually be “dumbing down” across generations.

At the same time, the cost of higher education continues to outpace inflation, even during the most crippling economic environment of the past 75 years.  For those not in the upper echelon of earnings, the result is a seemingly insurmountable cost for an unpredictable return.  The debate can continue about whether the higher ed model needs to change, but in the meantime future students must create opportunities with the help available from educational institutions and the government.

Indiana is a progressive state in this area, and its leadership has shown deep resolve to improve financial access to higher education in their backyard with hopes of extending successful approaches across the rest of the country.

There is a great deal of work to be done on this front, and as I’ve noted before communications will have to be a central piece of the effort.  Especially for lower to middle income families, there is little pressure (or hope) of education beyond high school.  Indeed, in many circles staying home to work in the community is more praiseworthy than getting a degree, and the idea of understanding how to afford higher education is overshadowed by the fact that higher education is simply not a part of the plan.  To paraphrase Treasurer Mourdock, too many people think saving for college is not something they can do – or even more commonly, they don’t think about it at all.

The Forum admirably  investigated approaches to changing that mentality, and it was against this backdrop that the pairing of culture and confidence took center stage for me.  Breaking the culture of self-doubt requires confidence for both the messengers providing a new avenue and those willing to walk it.  Simple but powerful messages, crafted carefully in order to inspire both the messengers and their audiences, can be built upon over the course of a generation of students.

In the end, the goal will be to make routine that which was rare.  Which, in essence, means changing a culture for the better.

Can communications achieve a more fulfilling goal?

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