This might be your life’s work but I’ve spent a good ten minutes thinking about it and I don’t like it…
At Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières we’re used to dealing with conflict and the world of protest and throughout my time here I have found helping businesses to navigate crisis and extreme change one of the most fascinating aspects of our work as communicators.
But I have often been surprised by the communications approach adopted by business when faced with an attack from an ‘anti’ group. These groups will often deploy an extremely emotional or moral argument, which business in turn attempts to combat with a sound, reasoned and sensible rebuttal rigorously supported by evidence and hard data.
Perhaps it is the very nature of business that often prevents it from feeling as well as thinking, but what is certain is that emotional or moral arguments are far more effective communications tools and can easily derail some of the most well thought out plans (despite how good the intentions are that sit behind those plans).
This is a challenge faced particularly by the communicators of new complex science and advanced technologies.
A few months ago I discovered a cartoon online that depicted a frustrated and anxious scientist surrounded by huge towers of paperwork at a radio interview. Sat across the table from him was a relaxed, and rather slovenly, looking gentleman who having spent a few minutes pondering the scientist’s work whilst sat at home had come to the opposite conclusion.
This got me thinking. Is such extreme polarity in debate really this prevalent when we’re evaluating new scientific approaches, and if so, are ‘antis’ damaging the UK’s world-class science industry?
Increasingly the success of a new approach may depend almost entirely on approval from the man on the street and not a detailed analysis of its efficacy from the informed scientific or regulatory community. Public debate through mass media has become the proving ground of many, and graveyard of some, new technologies pioneered by British companies looking to develop industries based on the world-class scientific research that takes place here in the UK.
Around the world the agenda driven anti lobby has managed to polarise and reduce important complex debates to a simplistic ‘for’ or ‘against’. They have done this by deploying moral arguments and fear tactics. In recent years GM technology has become one of the starkest examples of this phenomenon. Unfortunately there is little appetite, outside of scientific journals or sector specific publications, for healthy debate on how to apply or develop new GM technologies well. Furthermore, in the interest of delivering a powerful story, mass media has provided the ideal platform to launch a scathing attack on something that is not well understood yet by the public or even its detractors.
So how do we win over the hearts and minds of people who may be instinctively resistant to a new technology like GM, particularly if the media narrative has been hijacked by the antis?
Obviously complex science must be simplified so that it can be easily understood. But when a story about impending doom is significantly more attractive to the media we must think more creatively about how we deploy our messages. To get people to listen to what we have to say, or even to facts, we have to change the mood first. Communications material must be engaging and enjoyable. If there is little appetite in the media for reasoned debate we must generate interest by making something that has an emotional reward for the viewer so that it is discoverable and then shareable. Much in the same way anti groups have used social media to quickly disseminate their message.
Finally, and most importantly, communications should be tailored to reflect a brand’s own morality. The difference here is that science can also support its morality with a rational justification and hard facts.
An example from a client I’m very happy to be involved with:
Oxitec is an early-stage British export company pioneering a new approach using advanced genetics to combat the Dengue mosquito. Dengue, also known as ‘break-bone’ fever, is a growing global problem, infects between 50 and 100 million people annually and kills thousands. Reported cases of the disease have increased 30 fold in the last 50 years as the Dengue mosquito, Aedes aegypti, has spread around the globe.
The Oxitec solution is highly targeted at a single species of mosquito. Male Oxitec mosquitoes are released to seek out and mate with wild females. Any offspring that result do not reach adulthood suppressing the population and the incidence of the disease. The Oxitec solution is environmentally friendly and cost effective, unlike pesticides which are currently the most commonly used control technique.
In most sectors marketers assume that trial and early adoption of a new technology like the Oxitec solution will take place among “heat-seeking” innovators and early adopters. However, for a trial to be approved the company must communicate its offering simultaneously to the most and least sophisticated customers on the planet. Oxitec must gain approval from the man on the street in a remote village right up to the chief scientific officer at the national regulator and government.
Key for Oxitec is winning over members of communities who may be instinctively resistant to GM technology or afraid of a technology they do not fully understand. At the same time the Oxitec story has attracted the attention of their own anti groups who are seeking to derail a healthy and detailed debate about its application.
Firstly to address real concerns that new technologies are not well understood we were inspired to develop a new vehicle to engage people with complex science. The solution here was to create films with content based on original characters audiences could relate to, remember and feel compelled to share. Clay animation, or ‘claymation’, was the answer and a wonderfully simple way to communicate our messages.
At the same time we helped Oxitec to develop their brand experience and adapt their communications (as you will also see in the films) to reflect their own brand morality. To take back control from the antis communications were tailored to reflect first the powerful need for the Oxitec solution and the suffering caused by this terrible disease; thus opening up the way for a more reasoned debate about the science that sits behind the Oxitec solution to take place.
To view the Oxitec films please click, here
Consultant in International and UK Political and Corporate Communications