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Can Energy Sector Workers Serve as Influential Public Ambassadors?

Earlier today, in response to Sheril Kirshenbaum’s query at Discover’s Intersection blog, I spotlighted the key influence of opinion-leaders on energy related behavior.  As a follow up, let’s take a look at a new study out this month, co-authored by John Besley, an assistant professor of Communication at the University of South Carolina (and a friend from our doctoral studies together at Cornell.)

In the study appearing at the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Besley and his co-author surveyed individuals in the state of South Carolina working in the hydrogen energy sector, evaluating their potential to serve as opinion-leaders on the topic.  They reasoned that workers in the energy sector are passionate and knowledgeable, can they also serve as community connectors and go-betweens on the subject?  And if so, what kinds of resources should they be provided to be most effective?

I posed several questions to Besley in an email about the study and its relevance.  Below I have posted the questions and his replies.

Interview with John Besley, University of South Carolina:

What is an opinion-leader?

Opinion-leaders are the people we turn to in our own social circle when we’re trying to figure out what to think about something new. They’re the information junkies that you know will have an informed opinion about some subject that you’re just learning about. Opinion-leaders can be people with jobs that put them at the center of social life such as religious leaders or elected officials but they can also be the mother on the street who somehow seems to know everything about the local restaurants and schools. Pollsters, marketers, and political operatives have long known about the value of courting opinion-leaders. They’re the ones who do the best job showing off new electronic toys, selling Tupperware and hosting coffee fundraisers for up-and-coming politicians.

Why are opinion-leaders important to new technologies, specifically to hydrogen technology?

My sense is that people have some sort of mental image of what hydrogen energy is but it’s probably pretty vague. It’s also potentially wrong if what they think about is the Hindenburg or the explosions at the end of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. The truth is most of us have very limited contact with hydrogen or fuel cell (HFC) technologies. Unless I walk down to the engineering school here on campus, the only time I encounter HFC technologies is in media stories or when I see an occasional test vehicle on the street.

The idea of the current article was to find that small group of people – about 100 in South Carolina – who are working with hydrogen and fuel cell technology in their every day work and find out whether those people have been talking to people about their experiences and to find out what they have to say. My co-author, Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, is in charge of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance so she has an interest in figuring out whether these workers might be able to help spread the word about HFC technologies in their lives outside of work.

Why do you think science communication research until only recently has overlooked the central role of opinion-leaders?

There’s just so much to study and maybe it’s a lot more obvious to study the impact of regular news media on how people view the world. It makes sense to put a lot of focus there. However, as the field has gotten more sophisticated, I think we have come to (re)realize that to understand public opinion we need to get into the messy business of understanding people’s everyday talk. Studying opinion-leaders is one way to get a handle on what’s happening in those conversations. The media certainly play a part in the process but studying public opinion about technology (or any subject) without looking at personal conversations would be like studying retailing by studying advertising without studying what actually happens in the stores where people actually buy the products.

Do you think opinion-leaders are even more central in today's world of digital and social media?

They’ve probably always been important I just wonder now whether there’s more tools available for the opinion-leader to make their views known, whether it’s Tweeting, posting on Facebook, or writing a blog. There’s also the question of whether people’s social networks have expanded or somehow changed in structure. One thing I know from my own life is that, even though I’ve moved around a few times, it’s easier to stay in touch with people and I still sometimes turn to friends I don’t see very often for guidance. It’s an interesting question but it would be tough to study.

You describe issue-specific opinion-leaders and general opinion-leaders?  What's the difference? Why would the difference matter to a public engagement initiative surrounding an emerging technology such as hydrogen?

I think this is partly a question of how we go about measuring opinion-leadership but there’s also a substantive difference between the idea of someone who is generally out there giving advice and the idea of someone who is more focused on specific topics. There’s plenty of overlap between the two groups but for the current study we found that, to identify people willing to get out there and say positive things about hydrogen and fuel cell technology, issue-specific characteristics were more important.

Questions used to measure general opinion-leaders focus on things like the degree of agreement/disagreement with statements such as “I enjoy convincing others of my opinion” while issue specific leadership is measured using relative agreement/disagreement with statements such as “My friends often use me as a source of knowledge in discussions about HFC technology.”

What are the important questions that follow-up research in this area should examine?

This study looked at whether opinion-leaders existed within the hydrogen and fuel cell worker community and then explored what these people think about the technology. It turns out the people who say they like telling people about hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are also the ones who are already out there talking to people. The next question is really whether there’s room to help these people out so that they reach more people or to encourage them to focus on specific things.

Another question my co-author and I are hoping to be able to do is figure out what messages are most effective in getting people to think about HFC technology in a positive light. In other words, we want to know if technology proponents are better off emphasizing environmental arguments, economic arguments, national security arguments, or some maybe something else. The key is finding out what best resonates with specific audiences.

In what ways is this study useful to an organization, university, or company seeking to engage the public on hydrogen technology?

Opinion-leaders can be powerful voices in communities. Media campaigns don’t always reach very far into society. This also means that it makes sense to hold events like Science Cafés or other outreach events even if they only attract a small group of people. The kind of people who turn up for these things are probably the kinds of people who are telling others about what they heard, creating a potential multiplying effect for outreach efforts. As I noted above, however, there hasn’t been enough discussion about how to mobilize these voices in useful ways rather than just hoping that everything will work out.

One obvious question is to ask whether it’s ethical to try and shape these conversations but it’s important to remember is that you’re probably not the only source of information for opinion-leaders. By definition, opinion-leaders are pretty connected individuals so I think working with them puts an onus on communicators to be open, honest and well-reasoned. If you mess with these people, they’re going to tell people what a jerk or idiot you are just as surely as they would have passed along their positive impressions.

What do readers think? Can we harness the expertise and enthusiasm of energy sector workers to engage the wider public on energy issues and choices?

Citations:

Besley, J., & Baxter-Clemmons, S. (2010). Analysis of South Carolina hydrogen and fuel cell workers views and opinion leadership behavior: A waiting opportunity? International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 35 (16), 8407-8416 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhydene.2010.06.002

Nisbet, M., & Kotcher, J. (2009). A Two-Step Flow of Influence?: Opinion-Leader Campaigns on Climate Change Science Communication, 30 (3), 328-354 DOI: 10.1177/1075547008328797

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