Published: 20 November 2013

What’s your ask really asking? Lessons from communicating about nature

Charitable organisations often spend a lot of time considering their ‘asks’ – why the audience should care, what the subject line of the email is, how much they’re asking for. But the science of human motivation suggests that behind these messages may be a whole host of hidden asks that we should start taking into account.

In a fascinating study, half the participants were given a task entitled ‘Consumer Reaction Study’ and the other half a ‘Citizen Reaction Study’. The two tasks were identical except the title. What difference could that make? Quite a significant one, apparently. People in the ‘Consumer’ study, and in follow-up studies using pictures of consumer goods or related words, showed significantly higher levels of materialism afterwards, showed more signs of anxiety and depressive states, and were less motivated to engage in civic or environmentally-friendly activities than their ‘Citizen’ counterparts.

But why should this be the case? Research in social psychology and linguistics show that there are various sets of human values within each of us that can be encouraged and discouraged by the way we frame our communications. We all share values associated with care, civic duty, compassion and environmental concern, and we also all share values associated with materialism, image and self-interest. These two sets of values are in conflict with each other: when one set is engaged, the other set is suppressed. And subtle differences in language can engage these different sets of values because of the associations we have with them. In the study above, the values associated with being a consumer (such as materialism and money) suppressed the values associated with environmentalism and social concern.

Conservation, consumers and superheroes

In research carried out for Common Cause for Nature, we analysed six months of the external communications of 13 UK conservation organisations to investigate what values and frames were commonly used. A ‘consumer’ or ‘transactional’ frame was actually fairly common: with words relating to products and money, people being offered discounts and free gifts and two-for-one offers, even referred to as ‘customers’ at times, and the environment portrayed as little more than a cool product. The intended ‘ask’ may have been for donations and other support for environmental causes – ‘can you help us?’ But the implicit ask is to focus on material gain and self-interest – ‘what’s in it for you?’

The most common frame was one in which the NGO presented itself as a kind of superhero, defending the environment from often unexplained but ‘critical’ dangers. The audience could help out with small actions from the background, such as giving small amounts. It’s a seemingly benevolent frame, but underlying it is the message that environmental organisations have given up on the public and decided they’ll have to do it all themselves. The audience is almost entirely passive, unencumbered and unchallenged.

What’s the story?

The combined narrative of these two frames is less than inspiring. As a potential or existing supporter of an NGO, I’m basically being told that the part I can – or indeed should – play in the story of how we combat some really difficult issues such as environmental destruction and climate change is incredibly limited: I can be a consumer, or a bit-part, passive helper. The question we need to ask is whether that’s all we really need from the population at large. Because these frames can simultaneously suppress broader civic motivation – the type of motivation involved in political engagement, volunteering, and concern about other people and the environment.

The alternative requires a big-picture vision of the type of society, and the type of citizens, that NGOs want to encourage. Each communication should be seen as part of an on-going story of this vision, rather than an isolated task. And if we want to promote a more connected, less materially-focused, more environmentally-active society, we’ve got to ask for it.

Elena Blackmore, researcher, Public Interest Research Centre

Elena is a researcher at the Public Interest Research Centre and has a number of years doing work around values and frames with a variety of organisations. She is the co-author of The Common Cause Handbook and Common Cause for Nature.