Derailed by Poor Messaging

Or as Cool Hand Luke put it, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” writes Michael J. Socolow about campus reopening plans.

September 15, 2020
 
 
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It’s a simple persuasion strategy. Had it been used effectively, it might have helped campuses safely reopen, and stay open, this fall semester.

But it’s not clear any college or university fully deployed it.

This strategy leverages peer credibility over edicts issued by leaders and goes by different names, depending upon the social science discipline. Thus, one version is commonly called peer education, and colleges and universities regularly use variations of it to promote better understanding of such sensitive subjects as sexual health, alcohol and drug use, and other challenges to student well-being.

It goes by other names, as well. In my Propaganda and Political Communication course, we discuss Jacques Ellul’s version of it. In Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, his classic 1965 analysis, Ellul names it “horizontal” versus “vertical” propaganda.

It's also what we all intuitively understand as peer pressure, and its known effectiveness long predates Ellul. During World War I, several of the Committee on Public Information’s most successful propaganda campaigns used it, and Edward Bernays -- the “father of spin” -- exploited it for commercial clients in the 1920s.

Scholars who study and publish research on applied persuasive communication know students will generally be more influenced by messages that their peers and campus student opinion leaders deliver than by top administrators. Yet judged by the apparent ineffectiveness of COVID-19 messaging across American colleges and universities, it appears that much campus communication expertise was overlooked. It seems as though institutional leaders believed that their authority and credibility alone would suffice to significantly alter student attitudes and behavior. Oddly, they remained committed to that belief even when, over the summer, evidence kept mounting that their assumption was faulty.

Instead of reconsidering their messaging, or prioritizing an understanding of how others were receiving key messages, they seemed dedicated to their faith that students would fear COVID-19 as much as they did -- and that their accrued credibility would be enough to prevent the occurrences they feared.

It didn’t work. When students returned to campuses and behaved as students normally do, college leaders professed shock and disappointment that their top-down, vertical messaging proved ineffective. Many blamed students for not responsibly translating communicative directives into prescribed attitudes and behavior. In complaining about students, leaders avoided accepting their own responsibility for a much more essential misunderstanding: that communication is always dynamic, and persuasion is a difficult, complex and multifaceted problem.

What we had here was a failure to communicate.

That failure is especially notable when compared to successful approaches already demonstrated for COVID-19 communication. Last spring, peer-to-peer public health messaging had already proven effective in places like Japan, where networks of “cluster busters,” or contact tracers, were successful in quickly reminding people to avoid “the three C’s” (closed spaces, crowded places and close contact settings). The Japanese government did not authorize those cluster busters to fine people, suspend them from their employment or expel them from educational institutions. Their efforts were not seen as punitive, but rather as encouraging more collaboration from fellow citizens to mitigate COVID’s spread.

The good news is that it appears some American college students, who have completed contact tracing training, have begun acting as independent cluster busters on their campuses. A few colleges have instituted “student health ambassador” programs in which students are employed to gently remind their peers about required protocols. Yet the very nomenclature of these programs (the word “ambassador” implies mediation between two distinct groups) suggests they exist to promote behavioral prescriptions rather than encourage authentic cooperation.

That these programs are only now being instituted illustrates just how badly strategic communication has been neglected. Imagine if, early in the summer, colleges and universities had assembled campus opinion leaders -- the editor of the school newspaper; the captain of the football team; the heads of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim student organizations; the heads of the campus Democrats and campus Republicans and so on -- and asked them for assistance, not as a directive but in the spirit of shared cooperation. Student opinion leaders obviously enjoy college and campus life and are clearly invested in its continuation. Having worked with such student leaders in my career, I am confident they would not only comprehend but also embrace the essential communicative role they could play in keeping campus open and the activities they love ongoing.

This mode of communication requires sincere respect, an admission of humility and candor. Honesty and transparency are essential. Yet far more often, we’ve seen incidents that stoke student suspicions about the motivation of their campus leaders. For example, the student journalists at the University of Kansas have asserted that their institution’s leadership used a biased survey to obtain a predetermined result and then mischaracterized the results for the press. Similarly, University of North Carolina students discovered and publicized the discrepancy between their campus leadership's shared belief in the likelihood of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to reopening and their public communication on the subject.

To again use social science terminology, every such example of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias that backfired ended up damaging the respect for, and authority of, university leaders. These events reaffirm the truism that nothing is as difficult to accrue, and as easy to squander, as credibility.

Judging by what has occurred on campuses around the United States, competent surveys of student attitudes would likely have revealed a seemingly unresolvable paradox. What’s particularly clear now is that many students wanted to return to their campuses for both in-person learning experiences and to party. Had campus experts surveyed them in advance, senior administrators could have used the revelation of this dilemma to produce focused strategic messaging campaigns. It still might not have worked, but by and large, it wasn’t even tried -- probably because so few college and university leaders wanted to face unpleasant facts about their own students.

Communication is always negotiated, even when authorities believe their messaging will be accepted, respected and fully integrated into specified behavior. The notion of the hypodermic model of communication -- where ideas can be “injected” into audiences -- is so anachronistic that no serious scholar would argue its application could ensure significant compliance. Similarly, basic carrot-and-stick approaches that emphasize incentives and punishments have limited utility in a situation where overwhelming compliance is demanded. Events have demonstrated how overconfidence in both approaches can backfire.

I’m not asserting most reopening plans were fraudulent or that those who promoted and implemented them acted mendaciously. I’m only saying that many plans apparently relied far too heavily on simplistic notions of effective persuasion. That so many plans have already failed because of unmodified student attitudes and behaviors, despite extensive and costly efforts in other planning areas, provides evidence for this conclusion.

Perhaps it’s too early to second-guess and point fingers. But if we’re to learn from this experience we must examine every success and failure and apply basic lessons in real time, right now, as well as in the future. It’s clear, in retrospect, that focusing so tightly on legal ramifications, scientific and medical frameworks, and political and economic consequences -- while neglecting to emphasize the importance of focused, engaged, collaborative and interactive messaging -- ultimately rendered a lot of herculean effort fruitless.

And that might be the most important lesson that college and university leaders can learn from the COVID-19 crisis.

Bio

Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism, and the director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center, at the University of Maine.

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