Friday, July 05, 2013

How do you communicate action on climate change?

It's values that count in getting people on your side.

Anyone trying to get the public or interested parties on board for a project in the energy and environmental industries, or any campaigner working in the area of climate change, at some point has to find a way to 'sell' their project and the reasons for it; in other words, to 'sell' the relevance of renewable energy, energy efficiency, or climate change to particular groups of people.

This is not as easy as it sounds, and this week it was my pleasure to organise and participate in a workshop led by George Marshall, of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) on the subject of communicating climate change, which was based on his considerable research into the topic.

A classic mistaken piece of publicity, I suppose, is the TV advert prepared by Defra, and related press advertisements, for its Act on CO2 campaign. You can't actually see it at that link, although you can read about it.

Two of the press advertisements were withdrawn following numerous complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Astonishingly, Defra never tested this advert before airing it on national TV. All they did was show it to other people in the Department, thus wasting about £18 million of public money, George Marshall told us.

The danger of this type of advertising (another example is the disastrous TV ad by 10:10) is that it alienates more people than agree with it. It's no good producing a piece of work that addresses the values of one group of people, if everyone is going to see it.

Conversely, George gave a 'thumbs up' to a series of adverts by British Gas in which they showed people from various different backgrounds just talking about how they felt about climate change.

A workshop exercise encouraged us to talk about our feelings around climate change and what we ourselves do about it, rather than referencing science or reports. The difference was dramatic.

The lesson is: emotions are what chiefly connect most people to other people, especially if they feel that their values are shared.

George is working on a book which involves talking to people in the Republican right (Tea Party) in America about their feelings about climate change.

It's in America where opinions about climate change have become the most polarised on ideological grounds, with four out of five Democrats supporting action on climate change, and the corresponding proportion of Republicans having the opposing viewpoint. It's produced stalemate in Congress on climate change action.

If ever anyone is to bridge the gap between those constituencies, it would have to be done by finding what values they share with each other, perhaps segmented subgroup by segmented subgroup (for example working class black Texans, or middle-class white New Englanders).

There are plenty of things which George recommends we avoid: visual cliches (polar bears, cracked mud, floods) and verbal ones (words like green, eco, save the planet), not just because they are overused, but because they don't address the values the audience cares about.

Not even talking about money that can be made from a particular action (carbon trading for example) is necessarily the right approach, since doing this alone ignores the social reward which might be gained by undertaking the required action, which, in the end, can be far more important than making money.

"Don't assume that any existing campaign works," he says. "What are the values of your target audience? Speak to them. Ask them. Note down what words they use, then employ them back if relevant".

The second rule is to generate an aspirational social norm. He cites as a really successful campaign, one that has been used for 30 years in Texas to stop people littering. It doesn't even mention litter, just has a series of country music celebrities, whom the target audience will recognise, each saying "I don't do it', followed by the punchline slogan: 'Don't mess with Texas'. It's tough, it's macho, it's Texan, it's effective.

Just look at the other slogans on that link: "Be patriotic: respect and love the land you live on".

Another campaign rooted in good market research, not yet launched, which he shared with us, is one aimed at the Welsh people. The research showed that people in Wales value above all their landscape and their sense of community.

Part of the reason why the campaign against wind farms in Wales has been so successful is because it possesses all of the attributes of a good campaign: it is viral, community-based and speaks to common values.

It also plays upon people's fear of change.

The campaign to counter this would appeal to the same values, but point out that the landscape has always been "shaped by the hard work of the people".

It will point out that climate change is not something in the future, which people can push away and pretend is not happening now and so therefore does not justify action today. It will say that climate change has been happening since the start of the Industrial Revolution, its effects are being felt now, and they will only get worse in the future.

It will celebrate that Wales is blessed with natural resources that we value and can utilise: they may once have been coal, but are also, and always have been: water, wind, forests, sunshine and sea.

And it will point out that there is a long tradition of renewable energy in Wales: people have been using hydroelectric power for over 100 years. They have been using wood for fuel for much longer.

The uplands of Wales were not always how they are now, with a consequent need to preserve them in this state, but were once covered in mixed forest and teeming with wildlife. Many of these hillsides have been denuded by sheep farming and conifer plantations planted in rigid rows.

The landscape is not ‘natural’ and has always been in flux.

Wind farms, in other words, are part of the Welsh tradition, and can bring many benefits to the communities that host them.

A successful campaign must also recognise that the environment is also the streets outside our front doors, the air we breathe, and is affected by how we dispose of our rubbish.

A further point made by George is that many people (but not all) value belonging to a community.

If, therefore, a member of their peer group can be persuaded to advocate the action that we are looking for, then they will listen, and change.

Connected with this, an enhancement that George would have recommended to the feed-in tariffs programme would have been that each person implementing FiTs would, firstly, display in their window a small notice explaining what they have done, and secondly be financially rewarded for each person they recommend to join the scheme in their community.

These features could be applied to any of the renewable energy support schemes the Government is currently promoting and greatly boost their success.

To take an example from a parallel field, I happened to be part of the communications team for childhood immunisation in the NHS at the time of the first MMR controversy in 2001-02. My response was to publish friendly, factual material so parents could understand the importance of immunisation.

But people don't base their decisions only on facts and reason.

Having listened to George, if I was doing it again I would get mothers who have immunised their own children to simply say why in their own words.

Because these mothers talking from their own feelings are so much more likely to be trusted than the government.

A testimony of this sort carries the message: "I am one of you. I care for my children so I immunised them. I think everybody should do so, for the common good."

Similarly, for climate change, you yourself should say to your audience: "I am one of you. I care about climate change because it is already affecting me," and then advocate the action that you are trying to achieve.

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