Communications traps and how to avoid them
We need to improve the way we communicate with others about the problems with genetic modification (GM) in the food chain. One really effective way to do that is to watch out for common communications pitfalls and practice ways to avoid them. Here we describe our top five GM communication traps, using animal models developed by Framing Matters to help us remember what to look out for.
the repetition trap
When we use the words or phrases favoured by those promoting GM we reinforce their argument – even when we are trying hard to explain why it is wrong. You can prove this to yourself (and others) by testing what happens when we tell you not to think of an elephant! Instead of allowing those promoting GM to dictate the terms of the discussion we need to focus on what matters to us.
For example: When we say “GMOs will not feed the world” we are connecting GM and feeding the world. Even though we have made a negative statement, our words reinforce the idea that genetic manipulation provides food for hungry people. Instead, we should be highlighting our core arguments, such as “GM patents allow big corporations to exploit farmers around the world”.
“Myth buster” formats are a particular problem. It is tempting to use them because they help us feel we have put right the wrongs we constantly hear. However, research has shown that when people read a myth buster they are actually more likely to remember – and believe – the myth rather than the reasons why it is wrong.
Don’t be a parrot – use words that tell our story, not theirs
Rats are both a popular pet and an environmental health problem. A person’s response to someone mentioning a rat will depend a lot on whether they see them as friendly companions or ‘vermin’. The same goes for lots of language – we need to avoid making assumptions about what different people know and understand by the words we use.
For example, when we talk about sustainability we are mostly talking about reduced (or positive) environmental impacts, but others may associate the word with the financial stability of a business. Sometimes we need to choose a word that is less technically “correct” because a more general one will be better understood by the people we want to reach.
Watch out for rats – avoid jargon or any language that it is easy to misunderstand
Sharks are much misunderstood creatures. They rarely harm humans but popular culture has led many people to see them as a terrifying threat. Similarly, some words and phrases – despite what they mean to us – will always trigger a negative response in others. This may be a result of deliberate campaigning by those promoting GM in the food chain, or it might be for completely unrelated issues. Whatever the reason, using language that will trigger a bad reaction is not going to help our cause.
For example, we know that regulation is a key tool for protecting people, animals and the environment but vested interests have spent years describing it as a burden. We will get a better reaction if we talk about protections and safeguards, rather than regulation.
Keep away from sharks – don’t describe things we value with words or phrases that have negative associations for other people.
Robins are very aggressive but their cheery colour in the depths of winter gives them great PR. Similarly, some words have very positive associations for a lot of people, no matter how awful the thing they are describing.
For example, most people have very positive associations with the term farming and that doesn’t change when we talk about industrial or factory farming. If we want to talk about poor agricultural practice, we should name the specific problem or use a term industrial food production.
The flip side of this trap is that we can use the positive associations to help us. Using the same example as above, we might want to talk about how nature-friendly farming supports farmers as well as the environment.
Tread carefully around robins – don’t use words or phrases that have positive associations if triggering those will not help our cause.
Chameleons change colour to blend in and euphemisms are widely used to obscure or skim over the truth. Those who want to see a GMO free-for-all are very successfully using words that hide the harm that genetic manipulation can do.
For example, “gene editing” sounds like making a minor improvement when in fact it involves messing with DNA in ways that are risky, unpredictable and hard to control.
Watch out for chameleons – stop using terms that put a positive spin on genetic manipulation or any other damaging activity.
These “animal traps” were developed by Ralph Underhill of Framing Matters to help people identify and understand common communications pitfalls. They are not mutually exclusive – one word, phrase or message can trigger more than one trap. GM Freeze worked with Ralph and a group of campaigners to explore how the different traps apply to communications about GM in food and farming.
More in our Messaging Guide
Download our detailed list of common GM framing traps and suggestions for what you can say instead.[in progress]
Credits and collaboration – please read at least once
These webpages, the printer-friendly versions and the images you can download were all created as part of GM Freeze’s We’ve Been Framed project. The project was generously funded by the Network for Social Change, developed with input from the Public Interest Research Centre and delivered in collaboration with Framing Matters.
The We’ve Been Framed project benefited from the input of committed, enthusiastic and very creative individuals from a range of organisations including Beyond GM, EcoNexus, Food Matters, , Garden Organic, GM Watch, Organic Farmers & Growers and Soil Association.
This messaging guide is – and will always remain – a work in progress. We will update our recommendations as the external context develops and in response to feedback and our own experience. If you would like to make a comment or suggestion, please do so by emailing info[at]gmfreeze.org
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