Kusmanoff AM, Fidler F, Gordon A, Garrard GE, Bekessy SA. 2020. Five lessons to guide more effective biodiversity conservation message framing. Conservation Biology (in press)
In a nutshell: How we talk about or ‘frame’ information can have a big impact on the way people understand it, and how they respond to messages. Therefore, how we say something may be just as important as what we say. By strategically considering how conservation communications are framed, they can be made more effective with little or no additional cost.
This recent essay 📣(self-promotion alert) provides five ‘lessons’ to help conservation communicators think about how to strategically frame their messages for greater effect.
Lesson 1: How you say something can be as important as what you say
How we talk about or ‘frame’ information can have a big impact on the way people understand it, and how they respond to messages. Because all information exists in some kind of frame, we can choose to either be aware of frames and be strategic in how we frame our messages, or alternatively remain ignorant to framing and continue with what may be in many cases, a haphazard approach.
Lesson 2: Emphasize the things that matter to your audience (not necessarily what matters to you)
Understand your audience and emphasise those things that matter to them. Just because you care about protecting the habitat of a threatened species doesn’t mean that your audience will. However, they might care about retaining that habitat for the sake of human recreation and wellbeing, or tourism, or some other value. It is also important to consider who might be the best messenger for your audience.
Lesson 3: Use social norms
Social norms are the informal rules of ‘normal’ behaviour within a particular social group, and strongly influence behaviour. Messages should:
- emphasise desirable behaviour, and
- emphasise the social approval of the behaviour, but
- avoid emphasising undesirable behaviour – as this can indicate that such behaviour is ‘normal’ and unintentionally promote it
Lesson 4: Reduce the psychological distance
Re-framing a message to reduce the psychological distance can help engage the audience about an issue. Psychological distance includes geographic, temporal or social distance, and is also affected by the relative certainty of an event occurring (greater certainty reduces psychological distance). A message framed to emphasise that a problem will: affect people like the audience themselves; occur nearby; and is highly likely to occur sometime soon will help reduce this distance
Lesson 5: Leverage useful cognitive biases
There are many cognitive biases that influence how we think and behave, and messages can be strategically framed to either take advantage of, or to avoid, particular biases. For example, prospect theory, which results in a tendency for people to weigh losses more heavily than equivalent gains, has often been used to demonstrate framing effects. In one example, alternatively framed environmental policy options are viewed more favourably when framed as a ‘restored loss’, rather than as a ‘new gain’.
Even if you’d rather not deliberately seek to use a cognitive bias or other framing effect to your advantage, it is important to at least be aware in order to avoid accidentally activating unhelpful biases.