“Social license” – more than a buzz word? (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 7)

Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.

It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating to the public about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.

Agricultural communication research

The disconnect between the public and the agricultural industry poses a unique set of challenges and opportunities. It is becoming increasingly common for activists and detractors to capitalize on the public’s perceptions of, and lack of knowledge about, the agricultural industry to influence government policy and market decisions. In an attempt to minimize the risk of the public’s influence in ways that may negatively affect its sustainability and competitiveness, the agricultural industry has investigated ways to change the public’s perceptions of the industry.

Persuasion vs. education

Previous research efforts to change the public’s perception have been grounded in both persuasion and education, but are ultimately aimed at changing beliefs that influence perception. Some scholars believe that providing dispassionate and factual information is the most effective method of educating the public, so that when debates do arise, all participants have a shared understanding of the issues (Coleman, 2010). However, Vanhonacker and Verbeke (2014) concedes that “providing information and communicating about animal welfare will not automatically achieve the desired outcomes” (p. 160), as the public has limited practical knowledge of farm animal production and welfare, and not all consumers are interested in having such knowledge.

In contrast, other industry organizations have chosen to take the public relations route, promoting an oversimplified, positive image of animal agriculture (Fraser, 2001b). Producing oversimplified information can be misleading, and in addition with glossing over the ethical issues associated with animal production, can polarize the public (Fraser, 2001b). Furthermore, persuasion involves an adjustment in attitude, but not the transfer of knowledge, which may in turn work against the industry.

Social License and Trust

To be able to influence the perceptions, attitudes, and subsequent behavior of an individual or group, there must first be trust between the parties involved (Sapp, Arnot, Fallon, Fleck, Soorholtz & Sutton-Vermeulen, 2009). In the past decade, research has shifted from the goal of persuading and educating the public to building trust in an effort to maintain the agricultural industry’s “social license to operate.”

A social license is “the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions (legislation, regulation, or market intervention) based on maintaining ‘public trust’ (Center for Food Integrity, 2014). Public trust is defined as “a belief the activities (of an individual or organization) are consistent with social expectations and the values of the public and other stakeholders” (Arnot, 2014).

When the public no longer trusts an organization or industry, the social license is replaced with social control by means of legislation, regulation and compliance (Arnot, 2011). The introduction of social control is accompanied by higher operating costs, bureaucracy, and rigidity in the operating environment (Arnot, 2016), and therefore it is within the best interests of the agricultural industry to maintain its social license.

The concept of maintaining a social license has been well established within the industry, with Williams and Martins ((eds) 2011) stating that:

Farmers are increasingly expected to demonstrate their social and environmental responsibility as a pre-condition to being allowed to carry out their preferred farming and commercial practices [and that] Issues including climate variability, water scarcity, animal welfare, and declining biodiversity have led to increasing demands on farmers to conduct and communicate their farming practices so as to protect their “social license to farm.” (back cover)

Trust has been identified as a core component of social license. Research into building a consumer-trust model has been led by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) in the United States. The organization’s seminal work found that that shared values are three to five times more important to consumers than the demonstration of technical skills and competence in building trust (Sapp et al., 2009). That is, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Since developing the initial model in 2009, the CFI has continued to develop the trust model, seeking to understand both barriers and opportunities to building trust. One focus of its research has been identifying which information messengers have the highest source credibility, influence on the public, and the relationship between source credibility, trust and influence. Messaging from the following three “voices” were tested in CFI’s 2014 research (Center for Food Integrity, 2014): Mom Scientist (a mother with scientific educational and/ or work experience); Federal Government Scientist (self-explanatory) and; Peer (a person who shares your interest in food). Overall, the mom scientist ranked as the most trusted source of information before and after the messaging was delivered to respondents, although scores for government scientists increased after respondents read the messaging (Center for Food Integrity, 2014). Trusted information sources included websites, family, friends, and television (Center for Food Integrity, 2014).

Barriers to building trust include cultural cognition and confirmation bias. The premise of cultural cognition is “the tendency of individuals to fit their perceptions of risk and related factual beliefs to their shared moral evaluations of putatively dangerous activities.” (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011, p. 148). When faced with information about the risk of controversial matters, individuals will conform their beliefs to the group values of their cultural identities. Consequently, cultural cognition influences perceptions of source credibility; individuals are more likely to trust and give credit to sources who they believe share their worldview and values, and reject claims from those who they do not identify with (Earle & Cvetkovich, 1995; Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil, & Slovic, 2010; Siegrist, Cvetkovic, & Roth, 2000).

Another identified barrier, confirmation bias, is the tendency of individuals to seek out and favor information that confirms their own pre-existing beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). This effect has been observed in both individual and group settings (Schulz-Hardt, Frey, Luthgens, & Moscovici, 2000). The selectivity of individuals when seeking out and processing information is a significant barrier to agricultural communicators.

The majority of agricultural communications research, and that being utilized from other fields (such as sociology and psychology), has a strong focus on understanding message characteristics as well as the characteristics of the audience. Little attention has been given to understanding the characteristics of the communicators, their use of language, and how their personal frames and biases are influencing their communication.

Traditionally, when dealing with agricultural controversies, the industry has engaged with the public from a position of defense. The shift to focusing on building trust and communicating using shared values has been encouraging, but the focus of research is still largely on the information receivers (i.e., public) and not on the information senders (i.e., communicators). To change the public’s perception, the industry must first shift its own perceptions about how it engages with the public.