Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, a national authority on government relations best practices, grassroots and PAC influence.
Within the past 25 years, the Library of Congress has recorded over 1,000 books with “Armageddon” or “apocalypse” in the title. Certainly many industries and causes gain adherence via fear. Many political pundits believe that fear makes the political world go ‘round, from fears of voters to lawmaker fear of not being re-elected. Whether it’s deciding who to vote for, or how whether to give money or your time to a cause, many believe that instilling fear in your supporters wins their allegiance and action.
But what does the research say about fear as a motivator, and how does it impact your ability to gain attention to and action for your cause? Is there a right way and a wrong way to engage it in your influence campaigns? As with most grassroots influence tactics, the devil (and success) is in the details.
We Hate Losing More Than We Love Winning
Fear as an attention–getting and persuasion technique is also referred to in the literature as “loss-framing” or “scarcity.” I often hear government relations professionals lament their ability to motivate not only their stakeholders, but those who may not be organization members but are also affected by certain legislative proposals. There are a myriad of reasons for this, much of them based on the current influence milieu. One of the major framing reasons is because there isn’t enough scarcity or loss, which translates to fear, inherent in the issue’s outcome.
When we examine groups routinely cited as highly effective (and feared by their opponents), they all have something in common: their primary legislative goals feature scarcity. They are trying to prevent the loss of something. For example:
AARP – Social Security
National Rifle Association – gun rights
National Association of REALTORS – home mortgage interest deductability
There are many more organizations with the same dynamic (abortion rights groups, LGBTQ organizations, ACA supporters), but these above have been cited in two consecutive Grassroots Influence Pulse (GRIP®) surveys as the most effective grassroots groups in the nation, so I am featuring them based on that benchmark. Because we hate losing benefits, rights and privileges more than we love gaining new ones, these organizations have the “luxury” of being able to keep their stakeholders in a state of alert more than those without a legitimate threat of loss imposed by the government. I understand that they have many additional issues for which they lobby, but their motive force is to prevent loss.
The Right and Wrong Way to Leverage Loss
I was hired to conduct a training workshop at a national trade association conference where the audience was comprised of their state chapter government relations directors and state association executives.
I was sharing with them how to frame the benefits of legislative involvement and the “M” question came up: motivation. The attendees were perplexed at what motivates their stakeholders. One of the state executives was frustrated that people weren’t motivated to give to his PAC. He felt that if they could see how various lawmakers interacted with their industry versus their opponents, especially in a committee hearing setting, they would be enraged by the unfairness of it all, and moved to contribute to the PAC, regularly contact their legislators, etc. I thought it was a great idea and was getting ready to tell him so, until he told me part two of the story.
He took them to a committee hearing and had them witness how the chairman and majority members of the committee treated their industry representatives. They saw how questions were tougher on them than their opponents and how their opponents received more time to testify, etc. I asked him what the result of that exercise was, because it seemed like a vivid demonstration of the challenges faced by their organization, with real flesh and blood characters playing their parts perfectly. He replied that there were no results — his members did not change their behavior in any way, they remained apathetic.
He had half of the formula right – to present vivid information that demonstrates inherent unfairness in real time. However, there was one problem – he did not guide them through the “post – fear action plan.”
The Post-Fear Action Plan
Research has demonstrated that fear based communications usually stimulate people to take action to reduce a threat. But the rule has one important exception: when the fear produced message shows the danger, but your stakeholders are not given crisp, clear, effective means of reducing the danger, they may deal with it by “blocking out” the information or thinking it does not apply to them. You have to have a plan.
Health researcher Howard Leventhal conducted an experiment where students were given a public health pamphlet detailing the dangers of tetanus infection. There were two pamphlets – one was filled with the frightening details of the consequences of contracting tetanus, the other one did not have that information. In addition, some did receive a specific plan for how to arrange to get a tetanus injection, others did not.
Leventhal found that the high fear message motivated the participants to get a tetanus injection only if it included a plan with clear steps they could take to get the injection. The more clearly people understand the exact behaviors needed to dissipate the fear, the less they will block out your message.
The Bottom Line: You may have found that certain legislative proposals will bring about some kind of loss for your stakeholders—the fear is there. Do you know what your stakeholders should do to address the situation beyond “making their voice heard?” If a legislative proposal or regulation portends true scarcity and loss for your influence targets, you can use fear as a motivator. However, you must articulate tangible, crisp, behaviors people can take to address their fear. Otherwise, they will ignore your message and inertia ensues.