April 2022 Faculty Legacy Spotlight
Don Waisanen, PhD, a professor at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, received the Con Edison Social and Behavioral Research Award to support his research into the reporting of gas leaks in New York City.
In his project, “Using Social Marketing to Motivate Gas Leak Reporting in New York City,” Waisanen seeks to identify what prevents people from reporting gas leaks and what can realistically be done to prompt this behavior. According to Waisanen, this research stands to contribute to urgent questions about key motivators and drivers for a variety of public causes.
The Con Edison Social and Behavioral Research Award funds research that supports Con Edison’s goal of increasing public awareness of gas safety and of the importance of reporting natural gas odors. The winning projects aim to better understand factors that may or may not prompt community members to contact Con Edison or call 911 when they detect a gas leak or gas odor.
About Professor Waisanen
At Baruch, Waisanen teaches courses and workshops in public communication, including executive speech training, communication strategy, and seminars on storytelling, conflict and negotiation, and leadership in improvisation.
When conducting research, Waisanen seeks to understand how communication works to promote or hinder the force of citizens’ voices. He has written five books and close to 50 scholarly publications on this subject.
What got you interested in this research area?
Following a deadly gas explosion in East Harlem that made news headlines several years ago, Con Edison and other local stakeholders have been trying to figure out what factors motivate people to report gas leaks, as an issue with the potential to affect every New Yorker. I have been teaching and researching strategic communication for public causes at the Marxe School for over a decade. In past research projects involving other faculty and graduate assistants, for instance, we have tried to figure out what kind of messages can reduce real and perceived barriers to healthcare access for immigrant populations and how voting might be made more accessible for citizens impacted by voter suppression laws. A lot of these projects boil down to the question: What type of communication can motivate people to take action on important societal issues? When I saw that this grant engaged this challenge, it seemed like a perfect fit.
How would you describe your research project to the general audience?
When people smell a gas leak in an area, they don’t always notify a gas company or 911. In the weeks leading up to the gas explosion in East Harlem, and in many similar instances, it’s now well known that this lack of reporting played a role in the deadly fallout. So this research project seeks to find out what factors influence people in the NYC area to either hold back or contact authorities when they smell a gas leak. Our research team will be drawing from the fields of social marketing and other behavioral sciences to assess the effectiveness of public health and safety messaging, paying particular attention to tone, language, and culturally competent communication. Our goal is to advise Con Edison and similar stakeholders about what drives gas safety and reporting natural gas odors to prevent harm and advance the public interest.
Can you explain earlier iterations of this research and how the Con Edison Award will advance your work?
What’s different about our “pracademic” approach to the issue is that we will be relentlessly focused on “behaviors” (rather than “awareness,” which can mean little if people do not act upon knowledge) and the development of evidence-based, realistic, and impactful strategies for reducing audience barriers and increasing actions for this public cause. We’ll be doing both on-the-street interviews and online surveys to find out what key factors are involved in motivating gas leak reporting.
How does your research apply to the real world?
Although this research uses gas leak reporting as a lens to forward ethical and effective public communication, it applies to much larger questions at stake for all of us. The project stands to contribute to our understandings of risk and hazard-related communication on a host of issues. Foremost among them currently is how organizations and governments can communicate about viruses. For two years, we have all seen what happens when an issue like this gets politicized. Half of the equation is discovering knowledge about scientific and complex issues, while the other half should be about communicating that information well. Both sides of this equation require research, and if we only pay attention to one side at the expense of the other, our efforts will fail. We need to know about the obstacles that get in the way of publics taking actions that serve our communities, what types of messages and media leaders should use to break through proliferating sources of misinformation, and what quantity and quality of communication is needed to meet current and future risk head on.