When Zombie Narratives Attack

When Zombie Narratives Attack

Jennifer Aniston may be feeling an uncomfortable kinship with the solar power industry these days. Both are thriving now, yet others insist on linking them to negative storylines that lost relevance long ago. Haunted by the lore of Brangelina and Solyndra, respectively, the actress and solar businesses similarly find themselves caught in story arcs of “truthiness” or perceived reality. When faced with an attack by zombie narratives, what’s the best course of action?

Solar is the one industry that best represents the “post-factual era” that some fear we have entered during this political season. The industry is growing at a record pace and employs more than 200,000 people nationwide. Yet during the first presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump clearly referred to the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra as a disaster and suggested the industry is causing people to lose their jobs. “She talks about solar panels,” Trump said Monday night, referring to his opponent. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster.”  Later, he stated, “I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work.”

Even though the solar panel manufacturer went bankrupt more than five years ago, Solyndra lives on in political rhetoric. The story is used to diminish clean energy generally, and solar specifically, despite encouraging facts. In the last 10 years, the industry has had a compound annual growth rate of nearly 60 percent and the cost to install solar has dropped nearly 70 percent. The industry now employs more people than the coal or oil and gas extraction industries. Even the much maligned loan program that gave Solyndra funds via the stimulus plan has been found to have earned tax payers a profit over the long term.

While the facts have left lifeless the accusation that solar investment is largely a failure, the Solyndra narrative still lives on in public discourse, searching for brains to infect.

Battling the Zombie Narrative

In analyzing the psychology of personal narratives, Dr. Steven Stosny observed in a Psychology Today article, “When negative narratives persist over time, they develop a support structure of highly reinforced habits that are difficult to change. Once habituated, positive experience will not change negative narratives. Only change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the experience.”

Political and media-driven narratives can be similar. Once we become habituated, positive news will not change our negative narratives. Only a change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the news.

In his paper, “How Narratives Can Reduce Resistance and Change Attitudes: Insights From Behavioral Science Can Enhance Public Relations Research and Practice,” Terence (Terry) Flynn, Ph.D., McMaster University, offers insight into why facts alone are ineffective at combatting zombie narratives:

“A major challenge that public relations continues to face is message resistance. No matter how well presented a message may be, if the receiver actively resists the message, the desired change in attitude or behaviour will not be seen. Resistance is the devotion of cognitive resources toward processes that oppose the message. …  It is even possible that failed attempts at persuasion will make the success of future attempts more difficult because resistance can be self-reinforcing. An example of the backfire effect, in which messages produce a reversal of the intended effects, is the communication of climate change mitigation policies. Hart and Nisbet (2012) found a lack of correlation between knowledge of climate change and support for mitigation policies, meaning that simply providing more factual information regarding the issue did not reliably change attitudes in favor of mitigation and in some cases, it had the opposite or a boomerang effect on its intended audience.”

Facts alone won’t overcome cognitive dissonance. The key is to change the story to fit the existing worldview.

Solar Has Flipped the Script

There are signs that the Solyndra-fueled zombie apocalypse is coming to a close for the solar industry.

First, the American public appears to be embracing solar and clean energy.  According to the 2016 G&S Business Communications Sense & Sustainability® Study, 78 percent of U.S. adults say the next U.S. president should prioritize the country’s faster adoption of renewable energy. While renewable energy is broader than just solar, it’s difficult to imagine this number being so high if the most ubiquitous example of renewable energy was viewed negatively.

Second, the industry is finding its swagger. Recently, a number of high profile solar companies have declared bankruptcies. One would expect this to add to the zombie narrative horde and have the industry on the defensive. Rather, at the recent Solar Power International Conference, a panel discussion of industry leaders cast this as the normal growing pains of a successful industry, comparing it to the transformation of the auto industry and the internet as those disruptive industries transitioned into mainstream powerhouses.

Lastly, following Mr. Trump’s passing reference to Solyndra, Fortune and Thinkprogress.org featured columns pointing out the success of the industry and how it is actually driving growth and job creation.

Dawn of the “Cred”

The solar industry has dampened the fever that began with Solyndra by recasting facts to fit the worldview of those reluctant to embrace the emerging industry. Once seen as an environmentalist’s agenda item, solar is slowly becoming seen as a local creator of jobs and an enabler of lower bills and consumer choice.

Solar has gained its credibility through concerted efforts by industry participants and NGOs to build support from the grassroots to the grass tops.  Manufacturing plant openings and corresponding job numbers are posted on websites, and local and state politicians are lauded for welcoming solar into their communities (even in cases where the politician may have voted unfavorably on renewable energy legislation). Social media is used to highlight common ground rather than change minds, casting solar industry success as consistent with the shared values of those who may not believe in climate change or the need for alternative forms of energy.

From Hollywood gossip and political rhetoric to corporate communications, zombie narratives are a pervasive influence. Stubborn, negative portrayals persist and infect minds so that positive messaging can’t take root. The Solyndra example is helpful in demonstrating that while persistent, they can slowly be defeated by recasting the narrative. As Dr. Flynn points out, “By diverting cognitive resources away from processing resistance, narratives can both convey important information and help receivers integrate the information without dissonance, through identification and engagement with the message.”

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    Ron Loch is Managing Director, Chicago, G&S Business Communications. In a competitive global marketplace, Ron helps businesses gain by doing good. A G&S veteran, Ron’s collaborations with global Fortune 1000 companies and green business start-ups have delivered strategic, integrated programs to gain value from sustainability efforts and commercialize clean technologies. Ron oversees publication of the annual G&S Sense & Sustainability® Study, which gauges public perceptions of the corporate commitment to environmental and social responsibility. He also moderates many of the firm’s thought leadership events, which have welcomed speakers from Businessweek, Burt’s Bees, Verizon, Time Magazine, The Sustainability Consortium, The World Food Prize Foundation, U.S. Green Building Council, U.N. Global Compact, and more. Ron graduated with a B.S. in Journalism and Mass Communications from Iowa State University and received a Master’s Certificate in Managing the Sustainable Enterprise from the Illinois Institute of Technology Stuart School of Business. He has also completed the certified GRI sustainability reporting curriculum. Ron hones his crisis management skills by tackling obstacles in Spartan races.

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