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Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

A guest post by Weh Yeoh.

Everything that we do in development is about selling a message. Whether it’s conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor, convincing the public that foreign aid actually works, or recruiting people for a local HIV-testing program in Zimbabwe, we all need to convince people of what we ourselves believe.

Despite all this, discussion in development rarely revolves around the most effective ways in which we can influence other people. Previously, on whydev.org, we talked about the tendency to hold onto existing biases more strongly whenever views are challenged. When a message goes against the grain of what people already believe, convincing them of this message is complex, and requires effective strategies.

Courtesy of a recent study cited in New Scientist, here is one strategy that may work better: change the messenger, not the message.

Around the middle of last year, Republican politicians in the United States claimed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was a potential cause of intellectual disability, despite a lack of strong scientific evidence. Unsurprisingly, whether or not people believed them was highly correlated to their political stance. In one study, subjects were questioned on their beliefs across a wide range of issues, and then classified as liberals or conservatives. Scientists then examined their attitudes towards the HPV vaccine. When presented with balanced arguments for and against administering the vaccine, 70% of the liberals and 56% of the conservatives thought it was safe to do so.

The experimenters then created fictional experts who portrayed themselves as liberals or conservatives. With the more “natural” pairing of the liberal expert arguing in favour of the vaccine and the conservative expert arguing against it, the number of liberals who supported the HPV vaccine increased, and the conservatives who disagreed decreased. No surprises there.

The interesting result occurred when they swapped the messengers around, so that the liberal expert argued against the vaccine and the conservative expert argued for it. Under this scenario, 58% of liberals and 61% of conservatives supported the HPV vaccine. In other words, simply swapping the messenger around resulted in more conservatives than liberals being convinced by the safety of the vaccine, a complete reversal to initial findings.

This seems to suggest that it’s not so much the message that is crucial, but instead, the messenger. Recent calls from British PM David Cameron to end foreign aid to African governments who do not uphold gay rights do not acknowledge this research. Apart from the futility of such a threat, the British leader is only likely to bring up not-too-distant memories of Western imperialism and aid conditionality.

Who then, is the best messenger to convey the message we want to give? Let’s go back to the three examples that I opened with individually.

Conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor

Often, it is the fundraising department, sometimes coupled with someone who works “in the field”, that tells corporate donors how money donated impacts people’s lives. However, a more ideal messenger could be someone who doesn’t even work for the NGO – perhaps someone who works within the corporate sector itself. Apart from speaking about the good work of the NGO to colleagues, this person is also able to discuss the tax benefits of regular workplace giving.

Convincing the public of the merits of foreign aid

Again, having someone outside of the aid sector could be the best messenger. A trusted public figure with an average income (i.e. not Bill Gates) might be best able to explain how he or she saw the impact of aid work on a recent trip overseas. It is crucial that this figure is someone the public can relate to. Recently, Jet Li was criticised for encouraging people in China to donate more willingly to good causes, as they believed it was his responsibility, as someone wealthy, to do more of the donating himself.

Recruiting people for an HIV testing program in Zimbabwe

Rather than foreign NGO workers, a local Zimbabwean who was diagnosed with HIV and successfully treated for tuberculosis may be a more effective person to convince local people of the need for testing. Having a voice that local people can relate to could lead to the message being more influential and believable.

In life, there are many other instances where we also need to sell a certain message. It could be telling friends about the value of caring for the environment, eating foods that we think are healthy, or why watching back-to-back episodes of Glee on a Saturday night is not only bad for your social life, but also your general health and wellbeing. In development, we need to give serious thought about how the issue is being framed. But, before we even do that, we need to be selective about who it is that is doing the framing.

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Weh Yeoh is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales. With experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and in China with Handicap International, he hopes to combine his interest in development and passion for visiting far-flung destinations in the future. You can check out Weh’s main online project, whydev.org.

You can help shape a new initiative between Weh, Brendan Rigby, and Shana Montesol Johnson of Development Crossroads to launch a peer coaching matching service for international development workers. (Great idea, right!?) Take their survey below and let them know your interests, thoughts and ideas!

http://www.whydev.org/peer-coaching-is-that-something-we-can-interest-you-in/

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8 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    What a thought-provoking post. It seems to me, in the three examples at the end, that the NGO worker has no clout with any of our audiences. People want to hear the message from the outside or “unbiased” messenger, not the person trying to sell them something.

    Does this mean that us NGO workers should be selling our message not to the audience, but to other potential messengers?

  2. 2

    This is very useful food for thought. However, I don’t get the point about Glee. Why is watching back-to-back episodes of Glee on a Saturday night bad for my wellbeing? This is important! :)

  3. 3

    Tanya, it’s amazing how you managed to boil about 1000 words down absolutely brilliantly into just a few sentences. Would you like to volunteer as an editor for future articles that I write? ;)
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It seems to me that in an example of fund raising or awareness raising, we need to think about someone from outside the NGO who can act as the reference point of the donor.

    Nora, you and I need to sit down and have a long chat…

  4. 4

    @Weh: Thanks! I was already considering submitting something to WhyDev, so I’ll be in touch soon. :)

  5. 5

    This is a great post. Thanks for the clear framing and insights.

  6. 6

    This is why I found Invisible Children so fascinating: “three young men can enlist millions of citizens in support of international institutions’ efforts to bring relatively obscure war criminals to justice in an environment seething with distrust of those very same institutions – and in which two-thirds of college-age Americans cannot locate Iraq on a map. (More at http://buildingabetterworld.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/genius-vision-ignorance-and-expertise-invisible-childrens-kony-2012/) ” In the IC situation many ‘average’ (and often conservative) Americans were presented with people they could recognize, who claimed to be ‘doing something’ about an issue that was portrayed in a simplistic, easily ‘understood’ manner. I’ll be the first to agree that IC made many mistakes along the way, but I think the blizzard of criticism prevented us from learning from their profound social media abilities. (Many of which seem to relate to this post).

  7. 7

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking piece. This is actually Communication 101. We need to think of the credibility of the source for the message we would like to convey. But, then, credibility is defined differently by each specific audience. What can be credible to policymakers may not be so to donors or for that matter, the local governments or target communities and households we would like to reach with our message. The article gives the fresh insight that rather than think of the message only, we need to do more planning in the selection of effective messengers for the audience we would like to reach.

  8. 8

    I find it rather troubling (and depressing) that decades into international development work we still need “Communication 101″. Have we learned so little in over thirty years? And if we still think that it’s appropriate as foreigners to tell people how to change their lifestyles and sell them our ideas, then are we little more than liberal missionaries?


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