Messaging Influences Public Opinion, Public Policy, Future
As a public relations professional for almost a quarter century (split about evenly between North America and Asia Pacific), for years I have been trying to make sense of global warming from a communications perspective. As far as I’m concerned, global warming is by far the biggest long-term challenge that our world faces. This problem can only be addressed if it is thought to be important enough – and urgent enough – for people (both elites and mass society) to think and act differently about climate change than they have before, and to do so in concert with each other.
I can only see that happening if the public relations efforts around climate change improve dramatically. That’s because right now, current communications – while no doubt earnest and sincere – are just not getting the job done (if, indeed, it can be done against the many daunting obstacles which this post will attempt to partially describe). Getting the whole world to believe and behave differently is a tall order, but that’s what we PR people do every day in the service of multinational corporations. I think global warming should be a ‘call to arms’ for the PR profession, because we’re supposed to be better than anyone at the mastery of persuasion that’s so conspicuously lacking from existing climate change communications.
I’ve been following this issue for decades as a loyal reader of Scientific American magazine (which sounded the alarm early), but it was only a few years ago – stimulated by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” movie in 2006 and spurred by the UN climate change report published the year after – that climate change really broke through and got on the global ‘radar screen.’ The tide of coverage seems to have crested then and has been dropping since. If you look at the presence of either ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ in news headlines you will see that the former peaked in 2007 and the latter in 2010, with current attention levels significantly below the earlier highs. It is remarkable how little has actually been done since then to deal with climate change – and the current lack of public affairs urgency is absolutely breathtaking.
Such an ‘existential’ threat to our world’s future should command much more mainstream media coverage than it is currently earning. Whether that is related to a decline in the business fortunes of the traditional media – especially serious news platforms – or the ownership of outlets is debatable. I also do not see on social media networks the kind of intensity that climate change should properly merit (although that may be starting to shift). The coverage and conversations that do occur lack ample alarm given the potential enormity of the consequences for future generations.
There are many reasons why climate change is such a vexing communications conundrum; I don’t presume to have all or even most of the answers, but here’s what I have pieced together:
The ‘collective yawn’ that greeted the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the latest example of an important and ominous study that did not create the coverage it should have commanded. The attention it did generate was marred with sideshow distractions that detracted from the big picture.
I fear that there has been so much banal publicity concerning climate change in recent years, bland stories within the segment have become part of a routinized ‘new normal.’ The topic seems to have been ‘demoted’ in terms of editorial placement priority, with lower prominence and fewer reporting resources.
There’s an unfortunate irony here of course, because on the one hand while climate coverage has become common and the subject is famous, thematically it is highly repetitive and stale with limited news value. The result is the absence of ‘stop the presses’ media play on climate change that might help spur an imperative for action. There could not be a worse match between the climate change cycle and the news story cycle. The speed and timing of climate change is slow and gradual, whereas the news is about fast-moving and sudden developments.
The scientists tell us that temperatures are increasing and the seas are rising (as well as getting more acidic), but only in tiny fractions year-over-year. The problem is that what seems infinitesimally small and insignificant during our typical short-term perception frames is a terrible trend extended over decades and centuries.
Even when that is explained and quantified, it becomes difficult for people – and we humans are not very good at visualizing the future – to imagine what an increase in an average temperature of say 2° C means for the Earth as a whole. This is especially difficult to conceive when the daily temperature swing in most places can be much larger. The temporal dynamic is even more insidious when you consider that even though around the world the new record high temperatures being set routinely outnumber the new record lows, often there are exceptions to the long-term trend which breed a false complacency. This is especially true when there are cold snaps in global media capitals such as New York, London or Hong Kong.
Not only can we not easily perceive climate changes over time, but we can’t see the ‘culprit’ of carbon dioxide at all because it is a clear gas. As a result, many aren’t noticing worrisome changes in the environment because they have difficulty imagining them.
We humans aren’t ‘wired’ to notice small changes over a long period. But we do tune into extraordinary things with shocking visual imagery that happen suddenly or with unusual intensity, like floods, fires, storms and droughts. This has been called the ‘contrast effect.’ But unless or until those things all happen constantly in an unprecedented way, there will be a ‘wishful thinking’ tendency to hope that these are normal climate fluctuations. Of course, by then it might be too late. Indeed, there are those who say it already is and that we’re doomed anyway. So why should we work ourselves into a lather about global warming if there is nothing we can really do about it?
People familiar with the patterns of economic growth in this world know that all the carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution by what are now the developed countries will soon be dwarfed by the emissions of the developing nations such as the BRICS (who are only getting started in terms of their economic output). That reality is inescapable and inevitable, so in this context of massive guaranteed CO2 emissions, just how are we supposed to arrest or even attenuate climate change? For that matter, how on Earth are we going to reconcile our demand for never-ending increase in economic growth with, at the same time, having a world economic system that doesn’t cause a climate catastrophe?
Even with the remarkable strides in renewable energy technology during recent times, the absence of a climate change ‘macro fix’ makes people think it is more of a tough problem to tackle (conversely, though, the hope for one through blind faith in geo-engineering solutions is another source of resistance to change for some). The CO2 levels will only keep increasing, so the thinking goes that any effort to stop climate change is ‘pie in the sky.’ Even if people come to be concerned about climate change and think it is important, they may lack efficacy regarding what can be done. It is such a humongous problem, no one country or continent – and certainly no community or person – can solve it on their own.
The conspicuous failure of the most famous effort to do so – the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference – might have created a profound defeatism as far as multilateral action is concerned. I also think that many people must conclude that they as ‘atomized’ individuals can’t have much of an impact solving an intractable global problem. ‘Cause’ and ‘effect’ can appear so unrelated and any impacts feel remote instead of proximate. I have heard this called ‘psychological distancing.’ Certainly the lack of efficacy seems overwhelming, and this won’t change so long as climate change is communicated so badly.
Positioning and Messaging
Climate change has been depicted almost exclusively as an environmental concern, which may limit its salience. But it will go far beyond that sphere, affecting our economy, our infrastructure, our lifestyles and indeed our health.
Then there are visual story frames to consider. ‘Neuromarketing’ experts have said – and this is a simplified take – that people tend to decide what to believe and what to do in their unconscious brains, and that visual storytelling is key to convincing that most influential part of the mind. If that is so, then the challenge for climate change communicators is how to tell visual stories with images of things that in many cases haven’t happened yet or which people haven’t personally experienced.
This might be the most problematic framing constraint: around the world in most countries, people are richer and living healthier and longer lives than their ancestors. How do we make a compelling case for personal and political change to combat global warming when – compared to any era in history – human life on Earth has never been better?
The acceleration of exponential advances in technology will support increased prosperity, and accentuate our perception of prosperity. However, the more we are engrossed by digital technology and stare fixedly at dazzling displays much of the day, the less we might notice about the environment around us (just watch people in public spaces totally enthralled by their private technology experience).
Paradoxically as digital connects people into social networks online, there are reports of increased isolation, a decrease in empathy, plus a reduction of attention spans. If these things are happening, then they may become resistance factors that make climate change communications efforts more difficult. A lot of people thought the mind-controlled world of Orwell’s “1984” would be our society’s biggest threat, but especially with smart phones sometimes seeming like a digital ‘soma,’ I wonder if Huxley’s “Brave New World” isn’t closer to the mark.
Then there is what could be called the changing nature of activism with the advent of digital. If someone is worried about climate change and wants to be associated in front of their social network community with such concern, for far too many, activism may begin and end when they merely ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a worthy cause (“I’ve done my part!”).
In an ever-urbanising world, fewer lives are directly connected to the rhythms and patterns of nature, and city dwellers can’t perceive subtle climate changes as easily. I live in air-conditioned and high-rise Singapore, a prime example of a place where human development has achieved a commanding dominion over a ‘controlled’ environment.
Humans apparently have a psychological tendency to find ways to believe what they already think is true (and to find information which supports a position currently held), reinforcing the denial of the climate change ‘skeptics.’ People also seem to have a pronounced tendency to overestimate how much they know, and this is certainly true if you compare popular sentiment with the scientific consensus. Also, because climate change becomes a ‘debate’ between two ‘sides,’ denialist opinion gains more credence than it otherwise deserves.
The skeptics can be very vocal in projecting their opinions. Have you ever noticed how many of them come out of the woodwork and post denial comments when climate change stories appear online? I don’t see some sinister global conspiracy of climate deniers, but the fact that there are so many who are claiming climate change is a hoax is seeding doubt about whether to believe in the problem and breeding complacency regarding whether to act differently – or not.
Not long ago I spotted this story: “Why Happy People Hide From Climate Change” which suggests that people with a sunny disposition are less likely to seek out global warming stories. I’m not sure how that works exactly, but apparently people who are already concerned about climate change are more inclined to look for more information about it (which overwhelmingly would provide even more reasons to feel concerned). Especially on social media, it seems we’re supposed to wear happy masks and be perennially positive, so articulating concern about climate change associates us with an unappealing negative and pessimistic image of a dystopian future. How many of us are familiar with this conventional wisdom: ‘Don’t worry about those things in life over which you have absolutely no control?’ So why taint your image by becoming a ‘doom and gloom’ type worried about climate change?
There has been an obvious failure to connect climate change with our everyday lives and paint a clear picture of how our lives might be affected. Hopefully what National Geographic has just done with this map showing what will happen if all the polar ice melts will become more mainstream. Climate change is a complicated subject and understanding the story in depth requires longer than many people are willing or able to devote to the topic. While the public attention span for serious stories has collapsed, there is no shortage of celebrity nonsense and sensational trivia – ‘twerking’ comes to mind – to provide plenty of distracting entertainment for the masses.
Let’s face it; fundamentally, most people don’t have enough time to sort out the complexity of climate change, because they have enough going on in their busy lives. Now, it is true that this is a complicated problem, but in terms of what people need to understand and act upon, it’s somewhat more simple: “climate change is really happening > climate change is a bad thing > climate change is caused by humans/can be solved by humans > there is hope and there are things we can do.” That said, getting this across to people, embedded it in their psyche, and driving coordinated individual and institutional action is much easier to say than it will be to get done.
Even if communications in the future break through and convince people that humans are causing the warming that is melting the polar ice, fostering torrential rains, driving droughts, kindling wildfires, acidifying and raising the seas, then so what? Well, then of course the challenge is to connect these things to the consequences for humans, such as water supply, changes to the food chain, property destruction and competition for land, mass migrations, the distribution of diseases, extinction of species, heat waves, storms and flooding, etc.
Stemming from these developments, the potential for violent conflict between and within nations seems obvious, but I don’t think more than a small minority have thought ahead and projected potentially frightening end games. For those who do ‘get it’ and see what’s coming if we do nothing, the consequences of climate change are so terrible to contemplate, I think many deny it sort of like people still smoking downplay that it might cause them cancer. I chose this analogy on purpose because it sure looks to this layperson like there is now the same scientific consensus on humans causing climate change as there was on cigarettes causing cancer (following a similar period of overwhelming scientific consensus).
Speaking of mortality, I’m in my late 40s and so should avoid the worst of the predicted climate catastrophe during my lifetime. For a long time, I admit that thought made me only care so much about global warming. I only really became emotionally involved in this topic after our children were born starting in 2007. Imagining them suffering because of how previous generations screwed-up the environment – while not taking action before it was too late – makes me feel upset and far more disposed to believe that timely and profound action needs to be taken. In these cynical and jaded times, coming out and declaring that ‘the Earth’ or ‘Mankind’ or ‘the Human Race’ hangs in the balance sounds overly dramatic, even a tad maudlin. A few months ago, I hesitated to add the phrase “concerned about climate change” to my Twitter profile because I thought people might find me a bit overwrought (I went ahead anyway).
I’ve been involved with sustainability since attending the UN Earth Summit at Brazil in 1992, and if I’m thinking that way, maybe others less engaged are even more reluctant to publicly connect themselves to the climate change cause. Speaking of which, I also notice that when I share something on global warming via Facebook and Twitter, there are fewer likes or re-tweets compared to almost anything else I might post about.
Ironically, efforts to improve climate change communications have themselves been poorly communicated. There are many worthy scientific communications activities around climate change. These are well intentioned, intelligent, logical and data-driven. Unfortunately, these activities can be very dry, tactically amateur, emotionally remote and strategically unclear. Some appear limited by their US-centrism or predominant engagement with the ‘anglosphere’ countries. It looks to me as though these people are doing their jobs, but we can’t expect climate scientists to be communications professionals any more than communications professionals should be assumed to be able to easily master the climate science. But we can hardly blame the climate scientists for taking communications matters into their own hands. They know better than anyone that global warming is going to be much worse than what most people think. They can see how the publication of one alarming study after another is not getting the message across or galvanizing people to take action.
Bridging the dangerous gap between what scientists know about the planet and how the society is behaving – and not taking their important and urgent information into account – is one of the most acute imperatives of our time. It looks like the academics and scientists are doing their level best, but it is simply not going to be enough unless the world’s corporate communications community – especially the PR industry – is somehow mobilized. There was what appeared to be a substantial conference on climate change communications in China earlier this month, but if you read the agenda, you will notice what appears to be the conspicuous absence of a single senior global-grade PR or corporate communications leader (currently serving anyway).
Judging by the tonality and content of what I’ve seen thus far, most of the opinion leaders on climate change think and speak in a woolly way about how the cause needs better ‘communication.’ It is easy to tell that many are thinking about and actually doing communications in the old-fashioned one-to-many top-down manner, where packaged messages are transmitted in a monologue to a captive audience. I think that the PR people reading will know instinctively that of course nowadays communication is about peer-to-peer horizontal dialogue that starts with listening, a conversation where ideas and information are freely shared between co-creators. It also occurs to me that many if not most of the scientists doing climate change communication may be completely unaware of this seismic shift.
Public Relations In The Public Interest
Climate change is too big a problem for any single person or institution to solve, so even the most effective communication will probably be inadequately riveting. Communication is not synonymous with public relations; it is a key function, but PR also involves understanding and explaining public opinion to affect wise decision-making. It can help transcend traditional audience boundaries through relationship brokerage, social networking, and community building. I think if we apply all the rallying power and convening capability of the PR profession to the challenge of climate change, we could have a fine example of what some have aptly called ‘public relations in the public interest.’
I have been tracking the topic of climate change communications for months and what I’ve noticed is the almost complete absence of the world’s top public relations leaders in the discussion. In some cases, I suspect their lack of engagement could have something to do with their portfolio of ‘carbon-rich accounts’ (which I have shared in some of my past energy practice client work). But with most energy companies starting to engage more openly in the global warming dialogue, there’s no reason why most PR professionals can’t start communicating with conviction on climate change.
PR has actually become such an aggressive and vivid concept in the public mind, perceived to be more important than ever: ‘PR war,’ ‘PR battle,’ ‘PR blitz, ‘PR spectacle,’ etc. It’s almost as if PR is now seen as a mighty secret weapon to be used to defeat one’s enemies.
You would never know it though, judging by our industry’s underwhelming presence in the conversation about our most formidable foe in the future. With some notable individual exceptions, I think PR’s lack of strong senior leadership on global warming work is an embarrassment to the industry. When it comes to climate change communication, saying ‘I’m only the PR person’ and sitting on the sidelines is a cop-out. The encouraging thing is that I know many rank-and-file PR firms are already doing their part – including in client and pro-bono cause work – and still more are ready to be mobilized in the cause.
As the industry of the world’s most powerful information workers, dealing with the looming PR disaster of climate change should be our cause célèbre. Here we can stand for something we’re proud of and give our work more of the meaning we’ve always wanted, by being the best we can be as a profession to make a decisive difference.
Like most ‘PR disasters,’ climate change is in fact a reality disaster. But if PR people get organized enough and resourced enough, we can help avoid this one before it happens.