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4.4.4 Message Design and Content

Discussing how we currently lack frames designed to tackle climate change-related challenges, Lakoff (2010) suggests that in the short term, while frames hopefully are being built to reframe challenges on a deeper level (something akin to the Space Race or citizen mobilization during World War II), it is important to talk about values, not just facts and figures, use simple nontechnical language, and appeal to emotions. Other things that might be stressed are empathy (which has a physical basis in the human mirror neuron system). Empathy links us to other beings and the natural world. The argument could be to take personal responsibility for taking care of yourself (e.g., maintaining your health) and taking care of others (e.g., protecting their health). Lakoff also suggests arguing for the ethic of excellence which calls on us to improve the environment or at least preserve it, starting with our actions (e.g., conserve energy). He provides his readers with some additional short-term suggestions while noting that it is really building up effective long-term messaging that matters:

1. Talk at the level of values and frame issues in moral terms. Distinguish values from policies. Several of my interviewees mentioned the need to balance the head and the heart when communicating about sustainability. For example, Steve Denne, the COO of Heifer International®, talked about how Heifer International® “thinks about the connection between head and heart in all people. We realize that connecting at the emotional level is important, but it is not sufficient.” Communicating with stakeholders about both the head and the heart is challenging. He described a partnership they had with a for-profit organization where both organizations were able to measure progress to their key goals. Heifer International® could measure changes in farmer income levels, farmer nutrition, and farmer environmental practices. Their partner could measure product quality and quantity. The first three tied to Heifer values; the last two were especially relevant to their partner.

2. Go on the offense. Don't accept the other side's frames. Don't negate them or repeat them. That just activates their frames in the listener's brain.

3. Provide a structure for what you are saying. Find general themes or narratives that incorporate the points you want to make. Tell stories that exemplify your values and arouse emotions. If you give numbers and facts, reframe them so their overall significance can be understood.

4. Context matters. Be a credible messenger, have good visual aids, and be aware of your body language.

5. Address everyday concerns. Use nontechnical words people understand. Susan Anderson, Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, told me, “Even in Portland not everybody cares about the environment. But people care about kids, and grandkids and the future. That is what we talk about. It is the future, prosperity, health, and family—those words. Things that people actually care about.”

Balancing Passion with Facts and/or Process at the City of Boulder David Driskell, Boulder's Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability, described how city planners are trained to be objective and process oriented. They design a process, facilitate input, conduct analysis, and make recommendations. However, the people in the Boulder Office of Environmental Affairs are visionaries. “They feel their job is to go out and convince everybody in the community that this is the way to go. And that approach does not work too well in a community like Boulder. We have done a lot of teaming subject matter experts with folks who are process-oriented.” He explained how Boulder's disposable bag fee came into existence. A staff member from the Office of Environmental Affairs identified a problem and proposed a ban on plastic bags and a 25 cent fee on paper bags. As evidence, the staff member provided information on what another community had done. The staff member had been trained to be a scientist, to understand the environmental impact of a decision but not necessarily the policy perspective and the economic and social aspects of the issue. David said he told her, before we get to the solution, let's define the problem. What is the problem we are trying to solve? Is it plastics in the environment? Is it the environmental impact of disposable bags? Is it a reuse culture that we are trying to create? What are the metrics for success? Where is the analysis of this? What is going to be the cost impact on consumers? What is going to be the impact on grocery stores? How is this going to be implemented? Have we done outreach with the stores that are going to be impacted? He explained:

It was not in that person's skillset to think about the process for developing that, so we teamed her with a person in comprehensive planning who had a lot of experience doing policy projects in the city.. .and that staff person who was doing the project just blossomed, she is actually now seen as an expert in the state of Colorado. Denver is looking at modeling an ordinance on what she did.

This example illustrates how individuals proposing sustainability-related initiatives need passion, but they also must possess sufficient data to support their claims and to back their warrants as discussed in Steven Toulmin's model of argument (1958). Toulmin said good, realistic arguments typically consist of six parts: data (the facts or evidence used to prove the argument), claim (the statement being argued), warrants (the logical statements bridging the claim and the data), qualifiers (statements limiting the conditions under which the argument is true), rebuttals (counterarguments), and backing (statements that support the warrants).

Message design and content issues also appear in several theoretical models. For example, Silk (2009) discusses how Bandura's social cognitive theory and Witte's extended parallel process model can inform message content. Social cognitive theory contends that people learn from observation; reinforcement or punishment impacts behavior; and learning is more likely if we identify with a role model and possess self-efficacy. The theory supports message design strategies that include message sources with whom the audience can identify, demonstrations of recommended actions, and the use of reinforcement or punishment as motivators. Witte's model discusses the use of fear appeals. Threats can influence perceived severity, perceived susceptibility, response efficacy, and self-efficacy. If threat is high and self-efficacy is low, people will avoid the recommended behavior or reject the message. Messages which convey threats must also include recommended actions that people can realistically take to address the threat. For example, following the airing of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the Climate Reality Project Gore started continued to recommend specific actions citizens can take on their website.

 
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