Persuasive communication has pitfalls
Industrial organisations often use communication to convince the public of their good intentions concerning the environment, writes organisational psychologist Gerdien de Vries in her dissertation. But this strategy has some pitfalls. Dissertation defence on 18 June.
In her research, Gerdien de Vries focused on communications concerning carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technique applied to capture CO2 released when fossil fuels are burnt and stored deep in the ground. Geologists are convinced that the CO2 is safe underground and that it cannot escape. But because CCS is a fairly new technique, not everybody trusts it.
In order to convince the public of the importance of CCS, both industrial organisations and environmental bodies make frequent use of ‘persuasive’ communication. Earlier research has shown that this type of communication has an effect, including on a person's opinion of a product. De Vries is one of the first researchers to look into what people actually think about this type of communication and how that influences their opinion about both the message and the source of that message. Certain communication techniques that appeared to be effective turned out to have pitfalls which had previously remained relatively unknown.
One of those pitfalls is giving irrelevant information. De Vries: ‘Experts often think: if we just provide as much information as possible, people will gain more knowledge and confidence and will automatically become convinced. In one of my experiments I showed that this argument only applies when the information provided is relevant. Irrelevant details weaken a relevant message.’
A lot of information is also heavily biased. For instance, industrial organisations have a tendency to exclusively emphasise the advantages of CCS, whereas activist organisations only mention its disadvantages. ‘My research showed,’ says de Vries, ‘that in that case the public all too easily feel they’re being manipulated.’ They lose their trust in the organisation and no longer believe they are being told the truth.
A third pitfall is being suspected of so-called ‘greenwashing’. This happens when a company presents itself as ‘greener’ than it actually is. De Vries: ‘A company can say that it is investing in CCS purely because it’s good for the environment. But people quickly see that as a strategic argument, because they suspect that the real motive is economic. As a business you would be better off saying that besides the environment, you are also taking care of your wallet; people like honesty.’
Using the results of this study, the public can gain more insight into the communication strategies of businesses and organisations, and their pitfalls. ‘In this way hopefully they can come to more well-founded opinions about difficult subjects like CCS,’ according to De Vries.
(18 June 2014)