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Social Change

Stop Raising Awareness Already

By Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand

Too many organizations concentrate on raising awareness about an issue—such as the danger of eating disorders or loss of natural habitat—without knowing how to translate that awareness into action, by getting people to change their behavior or act on their beliefs. It’s time for activists and organizations to adopt a more strategic approach to public interest communications.

For those working on a cause they care about, the first instinct is often to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the problem. When we care about an issue or a cause, it’s natural to want others to care as much as we do. Because, we reason, surely if people knew that you’re more likely to die in an accident if you don’t wear a seat belt, they’d wear their seat belt. And if people only knew that using condoms is critical to preventing the spread of disease, then they would use one every time.

That instinct is described by communication theory as the Information Deficit Model. The term was introduced in the 1980s to describe a widely held belief about science communication—that much of the public’s skepticism about science and new technology was rooted, quite simply, in a lack of knowledge. And that if the public only knew more, they would be more likely to embrace scientific information.

That perspective persists, not just in the scientific community but also in the world of nonprofits, marketing, and public relations. Public relations texts frequently cite awareness, attitude, and action objectives. Marketing students learn that awareness precedes action. And many of the foremost public relations and advertising agencies still report results to clients in the form of impressions—the number of people who were exposed to the message.

If the goal is solely to increase knowledge of an issue, then an awareness campaign can work just fine. But is it ever enough for people to simply know more about something? If, for example, the goal were to raise awareness among new parents of the importance of immunizing their children, you wouldn’t be satisfied if parents were simply aware. You’d want to be sure that they were also having their children immunized for the right diseases at the right age.

Or say you want people to be aware of the importance of being prepared for a hurricane. There’s a potentially life-threatening gulf between being aware of the importance of being prepared for a hurricane and actually having several cases of water set aside and an escape plan that your entire family knows and understands. Maybe your awareness goals are attached to something more abstract or where the solutions are less clear—such as the effect of implicit bias on workplace diversity or the growing threat of global warming. But in each of those cases, specific actions are available that can overcome both of those threats.

Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.

Read the full article on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Ann Christiano is the Frank and Betsy Karel Endowed Chair in Public Interest Communications and Professor in the Department of Public Relations.

Annie Neimand is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department, the Communication Manager for the College of Journalism and Communications and the Research Director for frank.

Posted: March 13, 2017
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