One University of New Mexico Communication & Journalism professor is seeing what all the buzz is about–and if he can change it.
Dave Keating is a purveyor of strategic communication, which entails the development of a certain message or campaign meant to reach a certain goal with the audience and the organization behind it.
“You think about someone's system of beliefs, and what they think is true or untrue about the world they live in,” Keating said. “That might or might not follow a structure that you can identify and figure out how best to persuade them, given the structure and the links among the different beliefs they have in that system.”
While his experience and past have centered on communications surrounding tough topics like tobacco use, Keating is testing a set of communications dedicated towards a smaller topic of conversation: bees.
“Pollinator conservation is a little bit more fruitful of an avenue,” he said. “People's beliefs about pollinators, about bees, are more changeable and movable compared to their firmly entrenched beliefs they have about political issues or even about health issues.”
Thanks to an $18,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Keating is working with a team of researchers at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) on the art of persuasion as it relates to pollinators.
“The main thing we're trying to identify is whether you can use different theories we have about how people's networks of attitudes and beliefs function,” Keating said. “If you can use that to identify topics of persuasive messages that will be most successful and then actually follow through on testing those messages, we’ll see whether those messages will indeed result in increased persuasion among people who receive them.”
Eight messages are in development which focus on pollinators as a positive. Each message is developed through the same style as the Pennsylvania Department, with a specific goal. One of them, for example, is that bees are interesting.
“We want people to strongly endorse that belief because the idea is that if this is one of the more central ones,” Keating said. “People holding this belief more strongly should actually follow through on more pollinator-friendly behavior.”
Keating did similar research when it came to messaging about alcohol consumption among UNM students. He found the more realistic and less ambiguous the messaging was, the more persuasive it was.
“It's important to have high-quality, professional messages that look like real things, that real people in the real world would come across,” he said.
So, out of all the persuasive messages Keating could be portraying, why bees? The answer comes down to the belief systems we all have. Perhaps a step towards the hive could help people realize opinions can be changed.
“It’s becoming more challenging to identify what logical belief systems look like,” he said. “If these few beliefs are in conflict, theoretically the rest of the system should adapt to resolve that inconsistency, but how can you do that in a world where people always have a justification for inconsistency?”
It’s at a time where political beliefs are becoming more polarizing. A recent Pew Research Center study found the Democratic and Republican parties are more isolated from each other than any time in the last 50 years.
“It seems like people's beliefs are increasingly more disjointed. Beliefs that you would think shouldn't go logically together do for that person, and they will find a way to justify that inconsistency,” Keating said. “It’s logically coherent for the person that holds them, but not for people on the outside looking in. That is an inconsistent set of beliefs that they have.”
Keating plans to test the eight messages on 1,000 participants. Each will be randomly assigned to the visual messages, and provide feedback. If there is a measurable impact, and a positive attitude towards pollinators, the study will go a step further.
“We've identified topics that theoretically should work because they're very central to that person's network of beliefs. What we should observe is that, you know, the ones that are predicted to be more persuasive will indeed be more persuasive than the messages that should fall flat,” he said.
This includes the Center for Pollinator Research at PSU using these messages, and actually pushing them out on social media, as a field test. This would last five to six months.
“Theoretically the topics predicted to be more persuasive would be more persuasive,” Keating said.
Besides diving deeper into why and how people believe things, Keating hopes his research will have good news for the environment. That’s because 1 out of 4 bee species (out of 4,000) are endangered, and in just from April 2021 to 2022, beekeepers lost 39% of their colonies. Bees are dropping like flies, while their role in what we eat is so critical.
“I try to focus on a variety of different health, environmental and other pro-social contexts and topics, but at the end of the day, all of them are something that I care about,” Keating said. “I try to make sure that my messages that I'm testing are factual, based in reality and have evidence to support them.”
Keating’s study could eventually get many residents of Pennsylvania, and maybe even throughout the U.S. to realize why pollinators are important before it’s too late.
“We want people to engage in more pollinator friendly behavior. Pollinators are important for a variety of functions- from biodiversity to food production to economic impact,” he said.
Learn more about strategic communication and all the journalistic opportunities available within the UNM Department of Communication & Journalism.