The Examination of Message Strategies Used by Environmental Organizations to Communicate with Members

Lindsey Beall

Major Professor: Edward Wile Maibach, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Xiaoquan Zhao, Christopher E. Clarke, Emily Vraga

Commerce Building, #3006
April 09, 2019, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


Environmental advocacy organizations have become increasingly important players in social movements and catalysts behind policy change. These organizations often use computer-mediated communication, such as mass emails and social media, to facilitate civic engagement (Obar, Zube, & Lampe, 2012). In this dissertation, I conducted two studies to determine what message strategies—specifically message frames and emotional appeals—environmental organizations use in their communication with members, and how effective those frames and emotional appeals are at eliciting the desired behavioral response (e.g., signing a petition, making a public comment, RSVPing to a rally or event). Evidence suggests that message frames—gain vs. loss frames, and emphasis frames that highlight a specific dimension of an issue (e.g., climate change is a public health frame, moral frame, national security frame, etc.)—can influence message recipients in important ways (e.g., support for environmental policies and performance of activism behaviors). Evidence also suggests that the emotional appeals used in messages (e.g., fear, hope appeals) can influence message recipients in important ways, positively or negatively depending on the circumstances (O’Keefe, 2016).  

A content analysis of 213 action alerts sent from three environmental advocacy organizations in the Northern Virginia area was conducted to determine the frequency with which frames and emotional appeals emerged in the text. Results from study 1 indicate that environmental frames, economic frames, public health frames, and moral frames emerged most frequently in the emails. For emotional appeals, elements of the EPPM—threat severity messages, positive internal efficacy, participative efficacy, and collective external political efficacy— and hope appeals emerged most frequently. In study 2, multiple regression analyses were conducted to determine the effectiveness of those message strategies at eliciting the behavioral response requested in the email (i.e., link clicks). Contrary to expectations, neither the message frames nor the emotional appeals significantly influenced the behavioral response.  Results from these studies shed light on how theory-based communication strategies emerge in an applied, ecologically-valid setting and how messages differ from those in experimental designs. This research suggests that persuasive messages in the environmental realm tend to have multiple frames in one message, indicating that further examination about the weight of certain frames, outside of the traditional frame/counter-frame scope, is warranted. Finally, results indicated that advocacy groups use well-documented climate change frames and elements of the EPPM in their messaging, suggesting a bridge between theory and practice.