How do we effectively inspire action? Can you really catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?

We have been in the sustainability field for 10 years and always reflect on our messaging and communication to influence policy or even action among our clients and we continuously ask ‘can we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’? For those who don’t know the meaning of this proverb it means you are more likely to get results from people by being positive and polite to them than by making demands.

All these centres on framing: how do we frame sustainability issues to promote action?

For a long time, sustainability communications were dominated by with apocalyptic statements ‘We have until 2030 to save the planet’ ‘life on Earth is Dying’ . These negatively framed messages highlight the risks humanity faces if we don’t act but how effective are they in promoting action? Studies have shown strongly negative messages can evoke feelings of terror or dismay— but also leaving one feeling disempowered and overwhelmed (‘it’s too big a problem— what can I possibly do about it?’), and so less motivated to act. So how do we frame messages to promote action?

Individuals are sensitive to how information is presented, the choice of the message frame can significantly influence attitudes and behavioural intention. The outcomes of the decisions or actions can be framed as either perceived gains (positive frame) or perceived losses (negative frame) in relation to a particular reference point. For example, the adoption of recycling behavior can be promoted through a positive frame, such as ‘‘if you recycle, you conserve natural resources,’’ or a negative frame, such as ‘‘if you do not recycle, the environment will deteriorate.’’ Both messages advocate the behavior of recycling; however, one emphasizes the benefits of adopting the behavior whereas the other focuses on the costs of not adopting the behavior. In your opinion, which of these two messages will promote action?

There are some studies that indicate positive frames can lead to actions and effective in promoting desired behaviours[1] while others studies have found that pessimistic messages about climate change may actually boost people’s beliefs that it is a problem and that they can do something to combat it.  For instance, when promoting ‘green’ products, demonstrating the harmful effects of not choosing the product proved more effective than showing the environmental benefits of choosing the product[2]. In other words, negative frames can work if they promote a specific issue and drive people towards a defined action, or if you are dealing with an audience with low sustainability concern.

Framing can affect about how people think and act on certain issues. Not only can framing have an impact on how an issue is perceived but on whether and how policy is made on the issue.  A good example is study that looked at the impact of media coverage on climate change issue noting that “climate change issue is more politicized in richer countries whilst in  poorer countries, climate change issue its framed more as an international issue that the world at large needs to address“. This is attributed to the fact that poorer countries don’t have the resources that richer countries do to fight it. The downside to these perceptions is ongoing political debate focus on science based targets as compared to reviewing policy measures.

Given this pace of change, we have a duty to examine and re-examine our communications strategies for the sake of inspiring the hearts and minds of every human on this planet. So can you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? There is no clear answer however these are some consideration of framing communication on sustainability issues to promote action:

  1. Audience segmentation: We are often advised to ‘meet your audience where they are’ which is crucial even when framing sustainability issues. It is key to ask the ‘why’. Why is this issue relevant to this target audience? What are their values? How informed are they? By tailoring communication to a particular audience segment is key focusing on intrinsic value , value that are crucial and motivate them to take action on key sustainability issues.
  2. Individual risks appetite: Individuals who are have a high risk appetite would respond to negative framed message as compared to risk averse individuals who would act to positively framed messaging.
  3. Level of experience and knowledge of the target audience on the subject matter: For instance positively framing a sustainability issue to a target audience that is informed of environmental and social issues is more effective. The role of values also plays a key roles for instance a person who prioritizes protecting the environment is also likely to prioritizes equality
  4. Gender also plays a key role in how we frame issues. According to this study social loss (negative framing) communication tend to be more persuasive to a female audience.

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