Maja Turnsek1 and William Nibbs2

1izr. prof. dr. Maja Turnšek, Associate Professor, Faculty of Tourism, University of Maribor, Slovenia

2PhD Student, Energy and Sustainability James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow, UK

The unseen nature of subsurface storage, the complexity of the geoscience involved and the comparisons to the oil and gas industry; all of these, among others, make it challenging to effectively convey the strengths and weaknesses of geothermal energy. Although there is extensive general advice on communication, collaboration between communication experts and geothermal experts remains fundamental to the delivery of well-applied recommendations specific to geothermal energy. Such an example of collaboration was demonstrated via the recent communication skills workshop at the European Geothermal PhD Days (EGPD), Glasgow 2023. The workshop offered PhD students some preliminary guidelines, along with illustrated case studies, as a means of introducing the importance of effective communication when conveying the potential of geothermal energy.

Selecting and adapting to the audience

The initiating step of compelling communication is identifying the target audience (e.g. local citizens, local authorities) and type of publication (e.g. local newspaper). What do they already know about geothermal energy? What is their perception? And most importantly, why would they care about your message – what arguments will you use to connect your research with their values and everyday life experiences?

For example, when tasked with writing a public relations statement about the EGPD conference, the PhD students realised that a different message should be written for the people of Glasgow and Scotland than for wider media outlets. The former is likely to be mostly interested in topics such as why Glasgow was selected for the event, how geothermal energy relates to the mining history of the area and the cooperation demonstrated between students of three local universities in organising the conference. Media outlets outside Scotland, however, would be more interested in topics relating geothermal energy to their own target audience. For example, specialised media outlets for energy professionals would be more interested to hear about the state-of-the-art in geothermal energy education and the trends in current PhD research on geothermal energy.

Carefully translating the complexity

Perhaps the most important challenge in geothermal energy communication is translating the complexity of one’s work into comprehensible language for wider audiences without hindering the credibility of the research or messenger. On the one hand, there is an ever more pressing need to summarise the communication in short, visually supported “soundbites”, such as those dictated by the modern communication channels of social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc.). On the other hand, distilling the content to such terms may negate important aspects of the work, leading to perceived over-promising or unbalanced reporting. Building an engaging message may also demand that certain intricacies of the work, interesting from a technical perspective, are avoided, which may prove especially difficult given emotional attachment to the content (e.g. your own PhD research).

A further danger is to leave such work to communication professionals equipped with insufficient knowledge of the research. Stereotypically simple messaging will likely follow. Most common illustrations of this approach are public campaigns aimed at gaining citizens support for future geothermal investments where the main message is essentially: “geothermal energy brings us the utopian dream of a greener future.” Although this is probably the underlying faith we generally have in geothermal energy, it is important to note that the public reaction to oversimplistic positive descriptions is likely the negation of the message, lumping it into “just another propaganda”. According to the classical theory of reactance in psychology of persuasion if we are confronted with a persuasive message, we tend to secure our autonomy of belief via being motivated to find counterarguments and/or doubting the credibility of the messenger (Brehm, 1996).

Depending on the social context, geothermal energy also potentially invokes negative public perceptions. As Spampatti et al. (2022) show, positive, value-based messages about geothermal energy should be complemented with pre-emptive and detailed counterarguments against negative aspects that are likely to be publicly discussed. Although according to their research the negative information is much more likely to be remembered (e.g., seismic activity) not addressing such information in the long run leaves the audience unaware of the counterarguments and the steps that have been made to de-risk and secure the safety and general benefits of the project. Discovering counterarguments later in the process can leave communities sceptical and distrusting of future developments – upfront and honest engagement in early project phases is therefore critically important for creating a sense of inclusion and security.

Forming a story plot

Stories are such an ingrained element of everyday communication that we typically ignore the deliberative effort of communicators (e.g. advertisers) to use stories when conveying messages. In commercials, for example, we are so used to products being represented via the story of a hero’s quest with the help of a benefactor (i.e the product), that we take this to be the self-understood genre of advertisements. 

The most minimal definition of a story answers the questions: what happened to whom, and why is it worth telling? There are several theories on as to why storytelling is amongst the most effective forms of persuasion, but in a nutshell, stories persuade us because: 1) they allow for emotional identification with the characters, 2) stories manage to catch and keep our attention with suspense/drama of the story plot, and 3) they divert our attention away from the fact that we are being persuaded (and thus our motivation to look for counterarguments).

As such, stories are not the only, nor the most normative, means of persuasion – although they are arguably still the norm of an open pro- and contra discussion of arguments based on the most reliable facts – but rather they act as a useful aid; an important instrument that, just as with visual tools, can help in translating complexity for the benefit of intended audiences.

There are several caveats in using stories to convey messages. Most importantly, an interesting story plot typically relies on conflict or drama, a way to create a suspense in which the audience is eager for a resolution. To generate such suspense the most stereotypical approach is crafting a story around the conflict between positive and negative (e.g. between good and evil). Just as with the translation of complexity, this too needs to be done carefully.

To illustrate from the PhD workshop; when deciding to write about the EGPD in Glasgow, one group of PhD students developed a story of younger generations as heroes of future green development:  the PhD geothermal students as heroes in a race against time drama situation to redress the climate change mistakes of the past.  While the concept of students as heroes may be undoubtably inspiring, care must be taken when selecting the villain of the story. Their selection may backfire with the “older generations” reacting negatively to the blaming. All aspects of the story need to be treated cautiously to avoid the blaming, victimisation, or isolation of social groups, and instead build common alignments and inspiration.

To conclude, when describing geothermal research or initiating a project one must overcome the difficulty of being heard. This begins by explaining the technical content in a comprehensive, audience-focussed, locally-minded manner, through a trustworthy and enthusiastic person or team of people. Understanding the application of effective communication skills to technical research is thus an important aspect of career development within academia and an area worthy of further exploration within geothermal as a whole.  Thus workshops, such as those organised by Dr. Maja Turnsek and the COST Action Geothermal-DHC for EGPD 2023, provide the perfect space for PhD students working at the leading edge of geothermal research.

Detailed information on the workshop can be found in EGPD summary report available on the conference website

Used literature:

Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Academic Press.

Spampatti, T., Hahnel, U. J., Trutnevyte, E., & Brosch, T. (2022). Short and long-term dominance of negative information in shaping public energy perceptions: The case of shallow geothermal systems. Energy Policy, 167, 113070.