Building trust through communication: The social side of energy poverty
By Madison Steele, HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht
The word ‘poverty’ tells us to pay attention to material things, such as sufficient income for energy bills or proper insulation in homes. In doing so, we may forget to think about the social side of energy poverty. When we think about energy poverty as a social issue, we recognise the important roles that people’s relationships with each other, their community and their government play. We also recognise that multiple factors affect someone’s decision to participate in voluntary energy-saving initiatives. Even if energy-saving initiatives offer households items and services that are low-cost or free of cost, people need to (a) receive clear communication about energy-saving services and (b) trust that the services are working in their best interests.
Desk research has been done to identify best practices for communicating about energy-saving initiatives. Impact reports and journal articles on different initiatives throughout Europe indicate that communication strategies should take an integrated approach for the greatest impact (e.g. Anda & Temmen, 2014; Energie Voor Iedereen, n.d.; Kennedy et al., 2001). Energy-saving initiatives should pay attention to their communication materials, the channels through which they communicate and their presence in the community.
Printed materials, such as letters, posters and flyers, are a great way to create awareness. Such materials may be preferred in communities where residents may not have proper Internet access (Vulnerable Consumer, 2013). Emails, websites and social media are also useful if they are interactive and engaging (e.g. UK Power Networks, 2017b; Wallace et al., 2010). In addition, communication materials should use simple, non-technical language as well as visual aids (Energie Voor Iedereen, n.d.; Parnell & Larsen, 2005; Reames, 2016; UK Power Networks, 2017a). Materials should also be made in different languages, depending on the backgrounds of people in the community (e.g. UK Power Networks, 2017a). In these ways, individuals with varying language proficiencies and educational backgrounds can understand how an energy-saving initiative aims to help them.
Besides the materials themselves, the channels through which information is communicated is important. Using the right communication channels helps to build trust. Face-to-face interactions are often preferable to digital communication (Alphéeis, 2018; Shelter Scotland, 2017; UK Power Networks, 2017a). Door-to-door sign-ups may also be effective (e.g. UK Power Networks, 2017a), especially if printed materials have already been circulated through a community. A combination of written and verbal communication can help increase recognition. To further help with recognition and trust, energy-saving initiatives can consider partnering with local organisations. Healthcare or social work organisations, for example, could refer vulnerable households to the services that strive to help them save energy (e.g. Shelter Scotland, 2017; UK Power Networks, 2017a). Finally, personal social networks are also a key communication channel. People seeking energy advice are likely to consult friends and family before anyone else (McMichael & Shipworth, 2013). Therefore, energy-saving initiatives should encourage households to tell their personal networks about the services that can help them save energy.
Finally, energy-saving initiatives should factor their presence in the community into their communication strategy. Before launching a project on a large scale, organisations may want to conduct small pilot projects to gauge households’ interests and to start creating awareness (e.g. Liddell & Lagdon, 2013). Energy-saving organisations could also participate in local events, such as holding workshops or setting up an information desk at a local shop (e.g. Kennedy et al., 2001). In addition, organisations should promote their initiatives at pre-established events, such as town hall meetings. This way, meeting participants do not have to carve extra time to learn about energy savings (Berry, 2010). By increasing their presence in the community, organisations can become recognised and trusted by the households they wish to engage.
Through an integrated approach of using varied materials, simple language, trusted networks and community resources, energy-saving initiatives can start to overcome the social barriers to engaging energy poor households. These approaches help to foster understanding and trust among the people who can benefit most from energy-saving services. Of course, organisations should also collect feedback from households on what makes them most interested in and excited about participating in energy-saving initiatives. This process has already started with the organisation of REACT groups. Communicating with people is the best way to learn about their needs and how we can help. Communication enables us to engage in the social side of energy poverty.
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