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Analyzing the keys to environmental mobilization through social networks

September 16, 2015

Nobody has the precise formula for the success of social media viral campaigns, but there are examples of how they work. By taking as a reference point a Facebook environmental mobilization strategy which had a great impact, the researchers have developed a theoretical framework to help understand some of the keys to success. They have focused specifically on the work of the photographer Chris Jordan and the social media consultant Manuel Maqueda who together, have launched a social movement against plastic pollution and have gained two million followers for their cause. This movement has managed to change regulations governing this issue in over fifty countries. To achieve this, and to demonstrate the negative impact of plastic on our society, they used shocking images of young birds, poisoned by ingesting pieces of plastic.

According to Mª Itziar Castello of the Business Administration department at UC3M, one of the researchers participating in the project, the keys to the success of this campaign have their roots in three elements: "Firstly, recognizing opportunities: nobody is explaining to people the damage that plastic does to the environment. Secondly, creating what we call a 'narrative team' with a clear message which helps to highlight the problem; and thirdly, "the emotional alignment of followers by means of photographs which will have a strong emotional impact; these images will also create icons who people can identify with as heroes, heroes who are close to the heart of the problem and who can help the project gain legitimacy".

The article, entitled "Cultural Entrepreneurship and the Role of Visuals in Interactive Frame Alignment Processes", analyzes the communication strategies employed on Facebook by these social movement entrepreneurs. For example, Manuel and Chris say that the problem has not been addressed by its proper name until recently; previously, it was always cited as the problem of marine debris and it was they themselves who came up with the term, "plastic pollution". They have also stated that the solution is not to recycle, but to reject the use of plastic in the first place because it is, by and large, not recyclable and disposing of it by burning is highly contaminating. "Manuel and Chris have used 'cultural tools' to achieve their objectives, in particular images with a high capacity to motivate emotionally," explains Professor Castelló.

"The image that we've analyzed is the photograph of the corpse of an albatross, poisoned by plastic pollution. Albatrosses often mistake small pieces of plastic floating in the oceans for food to feed to their young. The offspring of the albatrosses cannot digest these fragments and more than 40% of the small creatures literally 'explode' because of the accumulated plastic in their stomachs. This dramatic image is used by the environmentalist social movement we're studying in order to convince potential activists who visit its Facebook page of the importance and rightness of their proposals", explains another author of the study, David Barbera, from INGENIO institute.

The study has been awarded the prize for the best paper on entrepreneurship by the Academy of Management, in its division, Theory of Organization and Management (UNWTO). It is the first time that a research paper presented by Spanish researchers has received a prize from the WTO, in this case for "advancing the understanding of entrepreneurship by means of the theory of organization and management". UC3M and UPV researchers collected their award at the annual Conference of the Academy of Management, held in Vancouver in August. "The main conclusion highlighted by this research is that we must integrate feelings with the theories of management. Cultural entrepreneurs use feelings, but in management theory, we have always ignored them. Consequently, management researchers have been able to recognize their innovation in this article and have given us an award which is regarded as the best management congress in the world."
Further information:

Castelló I, Barberá-Tomás D. 2015. Cultural Entrepreneurship and the Role of Visuals in Interactive Frame Alignment Process. Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, Canada. Winner of the OMT Division Best Paper on Entrepreneurship Award.

Video interview:

Carlos III University of Madrid

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