How to Message “Care”

The positive outcomes of great care policies are easy to find and make wonderful stories.

How to Message “Care”
Photo by Nathan Anderson / Unsplash

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For those of us who are “sold” on why we need robust care policies, the benefits may seem so overwhelming it can feel a bit baffling about why others need convincing. But to build a large coalition for meaningful change, we have to put that attitude of “isn’t it obvious?” aside and be deliberate about our messaging and connecting it to other issues potential allies are focused on. General polling on care issues often shows high favorability, but getting potential allies, voters, and politicians focused on actually taking action requires effective messaging and a sense of urgency. Like it or not, care issues do “compete” with lots of other problems and policy priorities. My research has led me to think that effective messaging is a really important tool in breaking through the noise and getting more people actively on board for a care agenda. 

In my Playbook to Transform How America Cares, I detail a case study of a ballot initiative in New Orleans in 2022 that proposed funding for 2,000 low-income early childhood education slots through a property tax increase. Community organizing partners like the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice were able to effectively rally their base of supporters interested in criminal justice reform with the message that the initiative was an economic justice issue for low-income families. Meanwhile, Bill Hammack, a prominent business leader in the New Orleans restaurant world, came out in support of the campaign as crucial to helping the city’s vital hospitality industry—one that will help all of the city’s industries recover and thrive after COVID-related challenges and worker shortages. Same ballot initiative, but very different messages to different groups to help get them on board. 

So, let’s talk about how to do effective messaging. According to messaging strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio, the care movement and its progressive counterparts have a chronic problem with holding up policies rather than outcomes as its central message. She points out phrases accepted as shorthand in the movement, like “universal pre-K,” don’t necessarily translate into effective winning slogans for coalition building or success at the ballot box or legislatures.

“‘Paid time to care’ was much more animating and convincing to people. They wanted to extend greater time and greater amounts of money for ‘paid time to care’ than they did for ‘paid leave.’”

“‘Universal Pre-K’ is a policy. The outcome of your policy is your message,” she said. Of the outcome, she said: “You drop your kid off at school, and she’s loving life while she’s learning, and you don’t have to stress about it.” Her mantra is “sell the brownie, not the recipe.” Her research testing even found that the widely used phrase “paid family leave” isn’t as effective as activists might hope. “We found that ‘paid time to care’ was much more animating and convincing to people. They wanted to extend greater time and greater amounts of money for ‘paid time to care’ than they did for ‘paid leave,’” explained Shenker-Osorio. “It’s because you’re not paid to leave your work. Why would someone pay you to leave your work? You’re paid to care for your family.”

Effective messaging is also a neutralizer against misinformation or disinformation about care policies. Painting a picture of positive outcomes that are not mired in wonky policy details rather than repeating misinformation over and over in the service of “fact-checking” is an often overlooked but key messaging strategy.

There are numerous ways the care movement can take the advice of Anat Shenker-Osorio to better message the “brownies” (wonderful outcomes), and not the “recipes” (the policy details). Luckily, the “brownies” of the care movement are abundant. They are children thriving in pre-K, looking at picture books with a beaming, well-paid, well-trained child care provider by their side. They’re parents with the time to lovingly bond with a precious new baby without worrying about losing jobs or paying bills. They’re a happy family surrounding a beloved elder reaching another birthday while living at home instead of at a facility. They’re a home health aide earning a living wage joyfully hugging their client who’s disabled.

A great example of this type of “brownie messaging” Shenker-Osorio pointed to is an ad from Kaiser Permanente called “Grow Old With Me.” 

The video is filled with heartwarming moments set to heartstring-pulling music—including a baby’s first steps, a mom in military fatigues coming home to her daughters, a multigenerational summer party, a grandfather teaching his granddaughter to make flower leis, a gay couple celebrating their marriage, and so on. This ad is for a health maintenance organization (HMO), and yet there are no images of hospitals, doctors, blood draws, chemotherapy treatments, or anything remotely unpleasant you’d associate with medical care. The final tagline is “We want you around for all of it.” This is the “brownie” of great health care: A full, happy, healthy, and long life. Similar messaging is a natural slam dunk for much of the care agenda.


The positive outcomes of great care policies are easy to find and make wonderful stories. The care movement can improve its messaging by focusing on the abundant positive outcomes of robust care infrastructure rather than focusing on policy jargon or wonky details. 

Even if you never have a direct opportunity to work on messaging around a care campaign, look for opportunities in your own life to highlight the joyful benefits of care policies. There is a lot of inequality in the US on who has access to various care benefits based on where you live or who your employer is, but if you are able to take advantage of care policies that are working, like paid family leave (or should I say, “paid time to care?”) a city or state Pre-K program, or an in-home community-based service that is working well, or a unionized care workforce, talk about it! Celebrate it! Share it! And let your joy and appreciation inspire you to work for that same access for others who don’t have it.

For this week’s members-only thread, I want to hear your positive personal experiences with care policies, so we can start envisioning a better world for everyone. To get in on this fun, become a member of The Double Shift, it starts at $7/mo.

Holiday Members-Only Hangout

Making The Holidays Meaningful

Join us on December 13th at 2pm EST 

Let’s celebrate making it mostly through 2023 with some relaxed conversation about how to make the holiday season more meaningful. This time of year can be filled with obligations, family drama, and mental overload, so I’d love to take a pause and hear what works for people in creating meaningful time with loved ones and traditions regardless of religious affiliation. We’ll probably meander into other topics, so feel free to bring general thoughts and questions for the community about anything! Members, check your inboxes and cal invites for details!


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