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Understanding Social Context

In some places, stakeholder communication is required and the public’s right to know is described by law. In other situations, stakeholders become engaged out of self-interest and seek information proactively. Culture affects the way people think, interpret and respond. It relates not only to ethnicity and nationality but also to cultural differences among organizations. Academics have a different culture than elected officials and scientists communicate differently than CEOs. What is important to remember is that “one size does not fit all.” The principles of communication apply universally, but how they are implemented must accommodate local culture.

In each situation, nuclear professionals will convey unique aspects of their organizations’ priorities, attitudes and intent. When approached as an optional endeavour, poor communication can generate rumours, misinformation and misunderstanding about nuclear-related activities. Everyone should recognise their responsibility to communicate.

Qualitative and quantitative surveys present excellent ways to understand audiences better. Through this kind of research, communicators can gain insights into opinions and attitudes about relevant issues. Market research methods help identify learning gaps and determine which outreach vehicles may best serve a communication programme. Focus groups and surveys can also help inform messaging documents and communications strategies that assist with garnering consensus.

Culture theorists assert that discrete ways of life and associated worldviews can be mapped into four or five distinct groups. These worldviews range from egalitarian to hierarchical, individualist to communal. Ways of life can influence how like-minded people collaborate. The resulting communities tend to selectively perceive risk according to their shared systems of beliefs.

In addition to qualitative and quantitative audience survey data, we can look at how the mores of the community are constructed for some insights. For example, Geert Hofstede developed a useful six-dimensional model of culture. It allows for comparison between cultures by identifying five factors. Each exists on a scale weighted from high to low. High and low values on these scales affect the perceived role of participation in government decision making norms. In effect, Hofstede argues the role for public participation becomes part of the ongoing debate about the ideal society.  Communicators can craft better communication products and activities when they know their audiences well enough to provide material that appropriately answers these concerns:

  • Power distance – How important is authority? How is it defined?
  • Individualism – Do collective goals matter more or less than an individual’s goals?
  • Cooperation –Is achievement and assertiveness valued over cooperation and mutual support?
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – Will risk and uncertainty be embraced as an opportunity or avoided?
  • Long-term Orientation – Is greater value placed on the present or the future?

Everyone perceives the world in his or her own unique way and interprets what has been perceived in yet another unique way. Each one’s perception of the world depends on his or her personality. Personalities are shaped by many influencing factors such as age, gender, education, geographic background, ethnicity, religion, profession, family status, etc. These factors add to other communication barriers such as environmental and personal distractions.

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