Author: Espen Malling, November 16 2016 - The process of change is inseparable from the process of communication. Therefore, advocacy groups and other proponents of a knowledge-based development of society risk undermining their cause if failing to approach communication with the same scientific rigour they apply when studying and identifying solutions for their focus issue.
In a time when gut feelings have become the guiding norm, and easy solutions political best practice, progressive proponents of a knowledge-based development of society — in a both national and global sense — are faced with an important task.
Advocacy groups play a unique role here because they are some of the few actors capable of going beyond short-sighted goals. In other words, unlike the politician they’re not dependent on securing public support before the next round of elections, and unlike the corporation they’re not forced to boast impressive profits when the next quarterly report is up.
This means there’s room for healthy ambitions with respect to everything from the refugee field to the challenges of the unfolding ecological crisis. Ambitions that focus on a given societal problem’s root causes and not just its surface symptoms.
Public-oriented communication is an integral part of the process of change
A deeper, systemic focus, however, also implies that a central step on the path toward change is an enlightened and engaged public. Public opinion and the resulting bottom-up collective action is the primary driving force behind the necessary reforms, and in order to get there, the experts’ often complex perspectives on problems and solutions must first be embedded in public thinking.
That won’t happen by itself, though. Organizations and experts have to actively work on making appropriate understandings available for the general public.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
While members of the staff are hard at work identifying the best developmental path for a given social issue, the interest group often approaches external communication in an unfocused ad hoc way — as a somewhat unproblematic element in the work it’s doing.
In other words, the struggle over meaning is rarely seen as an integral part of the process of change on par with, for example, program development and evaluation, and this is unfortunate.
Bad communication undermines the issue
The superficial appreciation of the role of communication not least manifests itself in the use of ineffective communication tools. Oftentimes, advocacy groups will focus on having their communication blast out as loudly and as widely as possible. However, with the eyes fixated on the communication channels, it’s very easy to overlook the necessary first step in the dissemination of expert knowledge; namely, fine-tuning the contents of the communication. That is, getting the message right.
Even when advocates do focus on piecing together a strong message, only rarely will they make sure that it actually carries the desired effect. The process, which is often guided by a typical marketing logic, produces communication elements that are essentially based on pure intuition or empty metrics such as likeability. Whether or not the message is capable of heightening the understanding of complex causal relations and mobilize support for the necessary collective solutions is often unknown to the hopeful sender. A sender who has often spent a fortune buying advice and assistance from ad agencies.
Unfortunately, the risks of churning out badly constructed messages are by no means small. At best, the communication will simply be to no effect — at worst, it’ll undermine the mission it was meant to support. For example, putting ones faith in likeability measures will most likely validate messages that, rather than opening up to new understandings, strengthen existing ones. The former is usually the goal.
To recap, an enlightened public is a fundamental ingredient in the struggle for knowledge-based change, and failing to convey an effective message might very well mean a premature end to that struggle.
The communicator must take into account public thinking
So, what’s the explanation for why it’s so dangerous to not get it right when developing the contents of the communication? The cognitive sciences can provide us with that answer.
Here, a fundamental insight tells us that people are not “empty containers” into which information can simply be poured with an expectation that the original intention is preserved. One of the reasons for this is that human beings understand the world around them by constantly making use of the cultural knowledge they acquire throughout life.
The cognitive linguist Deborah Tannen says it best:
People approach the world not as naïve, blank-slate receptacles who take in stimuli …in some independent and objective way, but rather as experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception who have stored their prior experiences as an organized mass. This prior experience then takes the form of expectations about the world, and in the vast majority of cases, the world, being a systematic place, confirms these expectations, saving the individual the trouble of figuring things out anew all the time. (Tannen, 1993)
This is a super important point.
A myriad of deep cultural thought patterns are in powerful control over the public’s understanding of a given issue. Without actively dealing with that reality, one cannot expect a message to lead to the desired education and mobilization of the public. Best intentions aside, the advocacy group instead risks piecing together communication that is simply integrated into unproductive patterns of thinking, or that will even activate understandings that are directly harmful to the cause.
What does good change communication entail?
In short, effective communication is dependent on having the proposed ideas appropriately couple to the public’s thinking, thereby leading to the wanted expansion of understanding and action.
However, the broader public doesn’t necessarily possess the fundamental insights necessary for making the concrete proposals for change mentally digestible. Because of that, the organizations working within a given field should focus on developing and spreading exactly such understandings.
In other words, the interest groups must collectively work on making the basic expert perspective broadly available as a new frame of understanding. What are the deeper causal relations on the field? With whom lies responsibility for potential solutions? Through such a process, these and other similar questions will become possible for the public to answer.
The process can be summarized as follows.
First, a thorough examination of the existing cultural models of understanding is conducted. What understandings currently dominate when the public attempts to make sense of the issue in question? This research maps the “cognitive terrain” the communicator has to navigate in her attempt to engage the public in discussion. Among other things, it’ll become evident exactly where the largest gaps in understanding between experts and laymen exist.
Next, the organizations working on the field go on to design and test strategies for disseminating a set of new models of understanding. These are models that more precisely reflect the most fundamental, consensus-based expert insights related to the issue, and that help secure increased engagement and the building of political will. For creating those, a “translated” expert story is developed — a collection of narrative elements that can then be integrated as recurrent components in the individual organization’s communication material. Think of it as a shared, basic language that helps the public handle otherwise complex knowledge.
A particularly useful tool here is what scientists from a range of social and cognitive disciplines generally refer to as interpretive frames. Framing basically describes how the subtle linguistic and narrative selection of certain aspects of an issue can establish a particular frame of understanding that guides the reception of the information and cues a specific response.
Frame elements such as explanatory metaphors and values are central for making the public able to communicate and think with understandings that reflect those of the experts. Applying both qualitative and quantitative research methods, it’s possible to identify exactly the elements that have the potential to make the complex, systemic relations central to the issue — including the collective responsibility for systemic solutions — mentally manageable.
The results coming out of the research — the well-framed expert story — can then be applied by a united field of interest groups that in doing so take a huge, collective step toward solid public support for specific political initiatives.
The struggle for evidence-based social change is to a large extent a struggle over meaning, and that struggle must be fought with the right tools.
I’m co-founder of Andre Tanker (Danish for “different thoughts”), which is the organization in Denmark that helps fields of progressive advocacy groups mobilize the public by developing empirically tested communication recommendations. Applying Strategic Frame Analysis®, a method developed by the US think tank FrameWorks Institute, we conduct grant-based research projects that produce well-framed narrative packages. When put into use by a united front of interest groups, the frame elements support the public understanding of a given issue and strengthen the potential to collectively steer society in a healthy direction.
Read more and reach out to me here.
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