Knowledge Area BEPs: Communication Principles


Communication involves a source sending a message through a medium to a receiver who responds. This process requires an encoding stage to package the message and a decoding stage where the receiver interprets the message and responds. Gatekeepers regulate the flow of information from source to receiver. Feedback, such as an action by the receiver, allows the source to adjust the message; thus receivers become senders if their response is captured in some way.

Therefore, communication is understood as a two-way system, where both the source and the receiver must be listening (Jacobson, 1999, pp. 4-11).

Communication and diffusion instruments, when effectively applied, have the potential to influence various drivers of behavior, such as personal capabilities and constraints; habit and routine; values, attitudes, beliefs, and personal norms; and the social context, “but cannot directly affect the broader social, economic, or technological contexts. They cannot make inconvenient behaviors convenient, make expensive behaviors inexpensive, or remove institutional or legal barriers to behavioral change. They often cannot even get people to put environmental actions high enough on their personal to-do lists to get them done, even if they are convinced to act” (NRC, 2002).

Keep in mind, that “Environment-related actions must compete with other demands on a person’s time and energy. It follows that when such contextual factors stand in the way of a target behavior, communication and diffusion measures by themselves will have little effect. Similarly, when the target behavior is seriously impeded by lack of information, social support, behavioral models, and the like; regulatory and economic instruments by themselves may have little effect” (NRC, 2002, pp. 202-203).

Additional information about providing information (one-way communication).

Using communication for an educational purpose (two-way communication).


For greatest effect, the following generalizations apply (NRC, 2002, pp. 204-210):

  • Design the intervention from the behavor’s perspective.
  • Build on interpersonal communication.
  • Use multiple channels to communicate the message.
  • Apply psychological principles for message design.
  • Use clear and simple language.
  • Maintain a program’s momentum (repetition of the message).
  • Set realistic expectations (communication and diffusion takes time to be effective).
  • Continually evaluate and modify programs.
  • Attend to the political and policy context, which affects the likelihood that the communication or diffusion instrument will have an impact. The communication or diffusion campaign may need to be supplemented with efforts at community capacity building in local finances, administrative expertise, and civic involvement, for example.
  • Communication and diffusion instruments can be combined with other policy instruments, such as incentives, regulations, or improved access to technology – to much greater effect.


Getting In Step, A Guide for Conducting Watershed Campaigns – available from U.S. EPA:

Jacobson, S. 1999. Communication Skills for Conservation Professionals. Washington, DC: Island Press.

National Research Council. 2002. New Tools for Environmental Protection: Education, Information, and Voluntary Measures. Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. T. Dietz and P. C. Stern, eds. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Wilbur, Jack. 2006. Getting Your Feet Wet with Social Marketing. A Social Marketing Guide for Watershed Programs. Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Salt Lake City, Utah, pp. 36-45.