Communicating through shared values

Research is clear that values-based messages are among the most effective for reaching diverse audiences. That said, many organizations are still reluctant to deliver the softer side of the climate argument, relying instead on facts and information to draw attention.

Given the overwhelming evidence of how climate change is impacting us, this tendency is understandable – it often feels like if people just understood the data-driven evidence, there would be no way for them to refuse taking action.

But social science has shown that information is filtered through our existing beliefs. Which is why Common Cause in the UK has been investigating how to use values to better communicate about social change. Their recently released Common Cause Communication Toolkit draws on pioneering work by researchers like Dan Kahan, who has investigated how people’s worldviews impact the way they understand and engage with issues like climate change. It also links to George Marshall’s work around the finite pool of worry people have to engage with climate risks.

According to the toolkit, values-based communication needs to:

  1. Emphasize intrinsic values (or internally motivating values) like connection to people, land, justice or equality.
  2. Avoid extrinsic values (or externally motivating values) like social status, wealth or power.
  3. Creatively engage intrinsic values in ways that may not be obvious and help bridge climate change with other issues, such as health or social justice.
     

The toolkit’s advice is meant to serve a number of goals, whether your organization wants to make sure its fundraising strategies don’t unintentionally undermine its values propositions, recruit more volunteers or integrate values its day-to-day operations.

One key finding from the Common Cause message testing was that when groups prioritize one set of values, it makes others seem less important. This is great when groups are promoting a shared love of clear skies and a healthy environment, but can backfire if groups are promoting material values. Common Cause found that encouraging people to do something to save money, rather than tapping deeper values like caring for others, the action became transactional and people felt more like consumers, which made them less likely to be further engaged.

In order to move people up the engagement ladder, messaging needs to appeal to the multi-faceted nature of what motivates and defines us. A person is not just a CEO or a teacher; they are also family members, and have hobbies and passions.

Positivity within framing was also beneficial. In testing, when WWF UK encouraged people to adopt a tiger with messaging about how tiger populations have “plummeted by around 95%”, it was not as effective as the solutions framing of “this month £3 could help WWF link tiger habitats with green corridors”.

In the same way that using a muscle doesn’t wear it out, invoking shared values doesn’t use them up and could even strengthen those values generally for other groups working in the social change space. This is important, given that support for action on climate change will depend on our ability to build diverse coalitions across demographics and audiences. (The People’s Climate March wasn’t joking when they said ‘To Change Everything, We Need Everyone’.)

At the end of the day, effective values-based messaging requires groups to understand their core values and proudly own them. Whether it relates to ensuring equal access to clean water in drought stricken areas of California or fighting for social justice on the streets, clear values messaging can only build stronger communities who are working together for change, which is a win for all of us.