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In the News: Staff Columns

Communication problem: It's not about educating customers

Tuesday, March 28, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lauren Brey, director of marketing and research
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Farmers, the rest of the agriculture community and the broader science-sphere have a problem: A communication problem with our customers.

It is fairly well known that both scientists and farmers struggle at communicating with the public. As farmers, we use data on our farms each day to drive decisions. We need to use this same approach when determining how to communicate with customers, Dietram Scheufele says.

Scheufele is a science communication expert. He recently presented “The Science of Science Communication” in Madison to share his research into how the public learns about emerging science. His studies hold great insights for the agriculture community.

To turn the tide of science communication with customers, it is important to understand why we are in this situation and the assumptions that brought us here.

Here is Scheufele’s take:

Assumption: More information means more supportive customers.

One basic and common assumption held by many is that if only people had more information about science and agriculture technologies, they would be more supportive. However, research suggests that knowledge does not contribute much to people’s opinions and attitudes about science and technology.

We must move away from the idea that we just need to give people facts, Schuefele says, because decisions are not based on facts; decisions are shaped by the media.

Assumption: Traditional media still matter more than anything else.

In today’s world, people are not turning on their local television station or opening the newspaper to get information about science. Instead they are using Internet search engines, going to Facebook or talking to family and friends.

Scheufele predicts that the future of information will be through niche audiences and tailored news. Stories we see are targeted to us specifically based on algorithms and this trend is only going to continue.

As daunting as this may seem, there are also opportunities here. These same issues that cause us problems are also ways for us to get our message out if we are strategic and use them wisely.

For example, using opinion leaders and their reach to networks beyond our own to spread our information can be very beneficial.

Assumption: Science controls the message.

In reality, the scientific community (and agriculture) has had very little control over the framing of issues such as GMOs.

What we need to understand is that language matters early on — specifically, how technology is labeled early in its adoption. If we don’t label it, someone else will. An example of this is the term “pink slime,” which was coined to describe lean, finely textured beef.

However, once pink slime was established as the frame in public discourse, it became virtually impossible to change. The same is true of the term “frankenfood” to describe genetically modified foods.

Assumption: The same facts mean the same things to all of us.

It is actually quite difficult to find a message that reaches common ground with many people.

Motivated reasoning is based in confirmation bias (weighing facts heavier that fit or confirm our beliefs) and – as a result – biased assimilation (we fit reality into our existing worldview).

As a result, people from groups with different values or political views are polarized even further as they learn more about an issue. In today’s environment, which feeds us information we want to see (the algorithms discussed earlier), it is much easier for this to happen.

We also must understand that many of these issues are not only scientific in nature. There are social, legal and ethical implications that many people see as much more important than the scientific aspects when forming attitudes.

When you communicate at the points that divide, people move farther to their side. Messages should focus on what connects people.

For agriculture to truly connect with our customers, we need to apply what we rely on to run our farms and businesses – science, research and data – to our communication methods.

If we can start to do this, the tide may turn in our favor.

Scheufele's direction for effective communication

  • Be clear about objectives – why are you communicating?
  • Go where the audience is.
  • Don’t blame audience for communication failures.
  • Use existing research to inform your work (don’t fly blind).
  • Collaborate with social science researchers – the benefits are mutual.
  • Think about how you talk about science just as much as the science itself. Policy debates are not just about facts. 
  • Consider the values, motivations and prior beliefs that your audiences bring to the table. Values are not there to be changed. They are important foundations in everyone’s life.

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