This is the 31st in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (with minor copyediting changes) in the October 2015 issue of The Synergist, pp. 30–33.
Effective communicators think strategically.
In some venues, such as advertising and political campaigning, strategic thinking is a given. But a lot of risk communicators lack a guiding strategy. Safety professionals in particular spend much of their time urging employees to work safe – with no safety communication strategy to steer their efforts.
This column outlines a strategy I have been teaching and using and since the 1970s – GAAMM:
Appeals (and barriers)
Media and messengers
The GAAMM strategy is for a specific kind of risk communication called precaution advocacy: warning insufficiently upset people about serious risks. Safety communication is a kind of precaution advocacy. (So are health communication and environmental communication.)
The opposite of precaution advocacy is outrage management: reassuring excessively upset people about minor risks. As I go along, I’ll note some of the strategic differences between the two risk communication paradigms.
The payoff of the GAAMM strategy doesn’t come without work. Magic doesn’t happen just because you know in the abstract that you should start by identifying goals and strategize your way to messages. “Magic” happens when you actually make yourself do it for every safety campaign and every specific piece of communication.
If you’re sitting down to draft your next presentation, staring at a blank sheet of paper (or a new Word document), you have missed the point. If the paper’s blank, you should be writing down goals … then audiences … then appeals. By the time you’re ready to start drafting your presentation, the paper shouldn’t be blank.
Start by deciding what you want to accomplish – not what you want to say.
Make sure your goals are the outcomes you want, not stand-ins you’re hoping will lead to the outcomes you want.
Is it really your goal to get all your safety brochures distributed and make sure every employee attends the target number of safety meetings? Maybe so. But if the brochures and meetings are meant to accomplish something – a decrease in lost time accidents, for example – then that’s your goal … and whether the brochures and meetings are the best means to that goal is a strategy question.
Similar, “awareness” is rarely anybody’s actual goal. I was once invited to help develop an awareness campaign on climate change. “Suppose you succeed in increasing people’s awareness of climate change,” I asked my client, “but nobody cares and nobody does anything?” Similarly, suppose you succeed in getting your workforce aware of your safety program – but everyone thinks it’s boring and no one bothers to comply. A successful awareness campaign? Not if you defined your goals properly. Most goals are specific behavior changes or policy changes.
Note: In outrage management your fundamental goal is self-evident: to calm the waters. Since upset people are in your face from the get-go, listening and responding to their goals matters more than expounding on yours. But in precaution advocacy it’s mostly your show. At least until you arouse some interest, your audience doesn’t have any goals for the conversation, so you’d better know what yours are.
Audiences are chosen based on your goals: Whom do you need to reach in order to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish? Don’t waste effort talking to people who can’t get you where you want to go, just because they’re handy.
And think again about hard-to-reach or less-than-obvious audiences whose participation may be invaluable. Outreach to children, for example, played a crucial role in many early seatbelt and recycling campaigns; once the kids were onboard, they pushed their parents into compliance.
By definition, the target audience for precaution advocacy is uninterested. So you always have a choice. You can try to get your target audience interested. Or you can focus instead on mobilizing someone else who’s already interested (or easier to get interested) and can exert influence on your target audience.
Once you have identified your audiences, start characterizing them – their attitudes and values, emotions and needs, current behaviors, knowledge of your issue, media use patterns, preferred spokespeople, etc. Characterize your audiences with methodological rigor if you can; characterize them more casually and haphazardly if you must. (Usually you must.) The more you know about the people you’re trying to reach, the better your chances of reaching them.
Note: In outrage management we talk about “stakeholders” – people who feel a stake in what you’re doing and think they’re entitled to influence how you do it. But the people you talk to in precaution advocacy are mostly pretty passive: audiences, not stakeholders. You’re trying to turn them into “safety stakeholders.”
Appeals (and barriers)
Appeals are everything that predisposes your audiences toward your goals – preexisting needs, attitudes, emotions, etc. This is the strategic core of precaution advocacy: reminding your audiences of your chosen appeals and hooking those appeals to your goals as emphatically as you can. In other words, your messages won’t be about your topic itself. They’ll be about your audiences’ relationship to your topic.
I can’t emphasize this point too much. The single most important question to ask yourself after you have identified your goals and audiences but before you start drafting is: What’s there already that I can harness? Communication professionals sometimes call this “framing.” You try to frame your goals in terms that are already meaningful to your audiences.
Some appeals are commonsensical. You can “sell” safety by appealing to people’s preexisting desire to stay (and feel) safe. But less obvious appeals are sometimes more powerful. Three quick examples from the vaccination controversy:
- When trying to convince reluctant parents to vaccinate their children, it may help to frame the question in terms of fairness to neighbors whose immunocompromised children can’t be vaccinated.
- Another powerful vaccination appeal is the bandwagon. Logically, if everyone else in the neighborhood is vaccinated, maybe your children can be free-riders. But psychologically, if everyone else is doing it, you want to do it too.
- Of course antivaxxers can also think strategically. Arguments about vaccine risks take them only so far (since the risks are objectively tiny). Framing the controversy in terms of freedom and parental autonomy may take them further.
Similarly, hardhats can be sold not just as ways to stay safe, but as symbols of risk-taking. A hardhat announces that the wearer works in a dangerous place where hardhats are required. And with the use of decals, hardhats can become symbols of both group membership and individuality. Employees who resist appeals to safety may be more responsive to these other appeals. If they willingly wear their hardhats, do you really care that their reasons for doing so aren’t your reasons for wanting them to?
What about completely irrelevant appeals, such as linking the desired behavior to a much-admired celebrity … or the sexy models in safety posters of bygone years? Irrelevant appeals work (even sexist ones). But audiences tend to get uncomfortable about their irrelevance. That discomfort – called “cognitive dissonance” – can work for you or against you. Cognitive dissonance motivates people to look for better rationales for their new behavior. If you have these more rational appeals ready to roll, you can cement the new behavior. If you don’t, you may have to keep up the irrelevant appeal forever, or the new behavior may not last.
Barriers are everything that predisposes your audience against your goals. It is always worth knowing what the barriers are. But whether you should address them or concentrate on the appeals depends on your situation.
Note: In outrage management barriers usually matter a lot more than appeals. Addressing people’s objections (often by acknowledging their validity) is central to outrage management strategy. But in precaution advocacy the appeals rule. The main “barrier” is simply your audience’s lack of interest. Of course if you succeed in arousing some interest, then new barriers may start to surface.
Media and messengers
Your media choice should be based on your audiences and your appeals. You’re looking for media that reach your audiences, of course. There’s no point in trying to communicate with rock fans on a talk radio station. For that matter, there’s less and less point in trying to communicate with millennials via any radio station … or TV station … or newspaper. Text them. Go to their Facebook page. Or whatever has replaced their Facebook page.
You’re also looking for media that are conducive to your appeals. Appeals that are hotly emotional need an emotional medium; appeals that are visual need a visual medium.
Is a safety meeting a truly effective medium for reaching your workforce with the sorts of appeals you’ve decided to deploy? If it isn’t – and there’s a good chance it isn’t – then you might want to deemphasize safety meetings. Or redesign your safety meetings so they’re better suited to your audiences and your appeals.
Messengers, too, should be chosen to fit your audiences and appeals. Who will be credible and interesting saying that sort of thing to that sort of audience? And if the only messenger you’ve got at your disposal is you, what can you do to become a better-suited messenger?
Note: Most outrage management is two-way dialogue with small numbers of highly involved people. They have a lot to say to you, so you need an interactive medium that lets them say it. But precaution advocacy is usually a monologue aimed at apathetic people you’re struggling to make less apathetic. One-way mass media are just fine for precaution advocacy. But not if they’re boring. Think about safety comic books.
Now, finally, you can develop your messages. They need to embed your appeals, of course. And they need to be appropriate to your media – especially if there’s an editor who’s acting as gatekeeper.
Draft carefully. Make every word count. Test your drafts – and plan on probably needing to redraft and retest. If you lack the resources to test rigorously, test more casually. But test. At least ask a couple of typical audience members to give a listen.
Once you have come up with messages that are well-designed to achieve your goals, stay on message.
But bear in mind that effective precaution advocacy obsoletes itself. If your messages are working, your audiences should start thinking and acting differently … and now you need to strategize some new messages for your changed audiences.
Note: In outrage management you should stand ever-ready to go “off-message” in order to listen and respond to stakeholder concerns. You’ve got all night, and letting upset people vent is a precondition to getting them calm enough to hear what you’ve got to say. But in precaution advocacy your audiences don’t often want to talk back. If they do, by all means stop and listen. But as a rule you’ve got maybe 15 seconds of silent attention before they lose interest. So stay on message.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter M. Sandman