Strategic Communication For Animal Activists
As an academic who also consults with non-profits, I have worked with many animal activists who are looking for strategies to improve the effectiveness of their advocacy. While there is much to learn from your own experience of what succeeds and what fails, there’s also a fair amount of research in the area of persuasion that can be useful. One of the most important concepts is being audience oriented in your approach, working to find and highlight points of commonality rather than difference. I want to address some of the best ways researchers have found to persuade others through identification.
By Courtney Dillard, Advisor, Faunalytics
Kenneth Burke, a well-known Communication scholar, developed some of his major theoretical work around this – coining the term identification. He recognized what other scholars have consistently confirmed: we are much more likely to be persuaded by somebody we feel we are similar to in some way. Burke writes: “You persuade a man only in so far as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (1969). He theorized that human beings dislike being disconnected from one another and will actively seek out points of commonality, feeling more comfortable when they find them. With this in mind, contemporary communication theorists have suggested specific ways that persuaders can build a sense of identification with their audience.
First, advocates can proactively seek out points of common ground such as similarity in basic demographics like age, region and religion. This would suggest that animal organizations intentionally consider these factors when pairing advocates and audiences. But it is not just obvious similarities that can strengthen your effectiveness, pointing out shared values, lifestyles or behaviors can have an even deeper impact. For example, in highlighting universally shared values like compassion you can construct a starting point to move your audience forward while reducing their defensiveness. Such points of common ground should be articulated early and often in your persuasive appeal.
In addition to creating explicit points of common ground, I have found that the thoughtful persuader can also implicitly suggest common ground. This is done by intentionally adapting your manner of speaking to the audience you are trying to persuade. With such an approach you strategically think through elements such as word choice, tone, and style. For example, when a speaker uses language associated with a higher education than that of the audience, the audience will immediately go on the defensive. If on the other hand, the persuader matches their style with those that they are trying to persuade the audience will feel more at ease and more likely to listen to what the speaker has to say. A particular strategic approach to implicit identification involves using key pronouns such as we, our and us to subtly suggest agreement. When I speak of our world being a better place without factory farming, I am assuming shared values.
A final way to build a sense of common ground is through the construction and demonization of a common enemy. If you think about it, the creation of an us requires a them. We are likely to join forces with those fighting against someone or something we do not like. With this in mind, it is important to remember that common enemies do not always have to be people or organizations, they can be concepts like greed or cruelty.
Another key concept which recognizes the centrality of audience in effective persuasion is Prochaska and DiClemente’s “Stages of Change Model” (1983). At the heart of this model is an understanding that people do not dramatically change their behavior overnight. While there are exceptions to this, often associated with dramatic direct experience, most people you are trying to persuade are likely to change their behaviors slowly and in stages. Recognizing where someone is in this process will help you to more effectively reach out to them. In most versions of the model there are five key stages. The first stage is referred to as the pre-contemplation stage. In this stage a person has yet to even consider the changes you are proposing and may even be unaware of the issues involved. When addressing those in pre-contemplation it is important for the persuader to acknowledge their audience’s current position, encourage them to reconsider their current behavior and highlight the personal risks or concerns associated with that behavior. Once a person moves from ignorance to awareness they also often move to the contemplation stage. In this stage the audience is beginning to consider change but not in the immediate future. They are literally sitting on the fence. For the persuader this is an opportunity to remind them that the choice is theirs, have them consider the pros and cons of pursuing the suggested behavior and highlight positive outcomes associated with doing it.
The next stage is the preparation stage. Here the audience tests the waters by trying out the behavior in a limited fashion. At this point it is key to remove obstacles that might keep the audience from enacting the behavior (like providing recipe guides for vegetarian dishes) and encourage them to move forward with small intentional steps. The fourth step is the action step. In this stage the audience begins to experiment with the new behavior as they consider whether it is one they could adopt more long-term. At this stage the persuader should offer them social support (for example online communities, blogs, monthly meetings of animal rights groups, etc.) as well as provide strategies for helping them to handle any negative feelings or consequences that come with their choice. Encouraging them to see their own power in the situation is also important. If all goes well, the audience will then enter into the final major stage which is the maintenance stage. During this stage the audience is typically self-monitoring and is able to engage in the new behavior without as much support.
The previous suggestions are just a few persuasion concepts available to activists in the academic and practitioner based literature. I highly recommend spending time with these ideas – for yourselves and the animals!
Courtney Dillard is a Continuing Professor in the Rhetoric & Media Studies Department at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She received her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas- Austin and her MA from The University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill. For over a decade, Courtney’s research agenda has focused on persuasion and social change. In the last several years, she has worked to support the persuasive efforts of nonprofit organizations and state agencies on topics ranging from healthcare to the environment. In 2008 she founded Common Good Persuasion, a communication consulting agency. She also cofounded Four Feet Forward with her brother, Carter Dillard, in 2002. FFF offers pro bono services in law, communication and design to grassroots animal organizations.