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Improving climate change communication

April 21st, 2014 / 5:55 am

It has been a few months now since I posted a piece on ‘the climate change PR disaster.’

That modest missive was aimed at the global public relations industry, which has the ability to apply its collective professional power to the cause of helping deal with the climate change dilemma through more effective marketing communication.

I didn’t expect to get much feedback from a blog which was addressed to such a specific niche, so I was surprised to receive messages from people in different parts of the world, including climate scientists, NGO types, social change communicators, as well as several rank-and-file PR folks.


Now I certainly don’t presume to be the most expert on this subject (especially when it comes to some of the psychological observations in this follow-up piece), but informed by the benefit of so much feedback, I am convinced that these are the things we need to keep in mind as we work to improve climate change communication going forward:

There is growing awareness of how communication can help combat climate change

More than a few people have thought this through and come to the conclusion that if climate change is the world’s most serious long-term problem, then there will be no solution to it until the public are convinced – via better communication – that they need to think and do things differently.

There has been a slew of media articles about this lately, exploring different climate communications angles (e.g. here in The New York Times). One of my favourites is ‘Climate change has a marketing problem’ which recently appeared in my hometown newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen.

There’s lots of interest in creating an international communications campaign

I have done several Skypes and calls with those who have reached out. I have found broad agreement that a truly international – multinational, multicultural, multilingual – climate change communications campaign is the ideal way to galvanize the needed awareness and action. There is no such thing at this time, although there are several worthy efforts based in different countries. It should also be noted that despite what are no doubt systemic constraints in play, there has lately been some improvement in the quality of climate change communication coming from the United Nations.

Marketing silos don’t matter much

Owing to its social networking prowess and cost-effective nature, I have suggested a PR-driven approach for climate communication. Others have strongly advocated advertising. Frankly, I consider the distinction between these disciplines increasingly irrelevant. With social media taking a wrecking ball to the old walls separating traditional marketing spheres, the bottom-line is that there needs to be a concerted effort to communicate more effectively on climate change across all online and offline channels.

Doing this is going to cost a lot of money

While there are plenty of individuals and groups who would like to see a worldwide climate change campaign, adequate financial resources dedicated to a global effort of ample scale are not yet in place. A well-endowed multinational organization or wealthy philanthropist are the most likely sources of such funding. While there are some groups and think tanks already on the case, most of these seem very focused on domestic markets, or mostly on the English-speaking countries.

The new academic research should be applied to practical programs

The science of climate communication appears to be attracting many academics and while I’ve noticed a few emerging experts in the field who are sharing new thinking with their colleagues – including at more and more conferences – there seems to be a ‘disconnect’ between what is becoming a wealth of intellectual capital and its application to actual real-world climate change communications efforts.

Campaign design will be key

For the scientific data to be useful on the front lines of climate communication, it must be organized, simplified and embedded into programs that are expressly designed to be purpose-built for persuasive communication. By ‘design’ I don’t just mean aesthetics; I am referring to structure, systems and function. Because we are dealing with a highly complex problem across incredibly heterogeneous contexts and communities, such design thinking will be essential.

We need to start with listening

These days, it has become almost cliché to say that communication starts with listening. Any climate change marketing campaign needs to be informed by evidence that can first be unearthed by qualitative and quantitative research. Asking people what they think and hearing what they say will help discover the approaches that might be effective, and it will also identify advocates while making them feel important for having been asked. As Dale Carnegie wrote in the 1930s: “make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.”

Crowdsourcing should help people co-create the campaign

One of my interests is crowdsourcing, and I fundamentally believe that global warming communication efforts should use social technologies to marshal the passions and capture the insights of a mass international constituency. The more varied the thinking and backgrounds of the people involved, the better the chances of discovering the best way of communicating with them. Like many others active in social networks, I believe that a ‘collective intelligence’ is emerging which will help us think our way through some of the most daunting challenges ahead.

Diversity must be addressed

Depending how you count them, there are 196 countries in the world, and within these, there are incredibly variegated linguistic and cultural contexts. Marketers deal with this dynamic all the time in creating campaigns for multinational corporations, and so from leadership representation to coalface tactics, climate communication should be imbued with the perspective that stems from this experience.

Storytelling will be essential

Storytelling has been all the rage in the marketing world for years now, with some research finding that our brains think about things through story architectures. Stories are thought by many to be the key to unlocking our unconscious minds, which supposedly have a much greater role in our decision-making compared to conscious thinking. Ergo, any climate communications campaign needs to tell a compelling story in order to influence opinion and inspire behavioral change.

People need to ‘see’ the climate change story

A disproportionate amount of human brainpower is dedicated to visual processing; there are those who say that we receive more information through vision than all the other senses combined.

Most effective marketing communication is highly visual, and lately we see how this is playing out on social media platforms with the explosive rise of pictures and videos.

It seems reasonable to believe that any storytelling about climate change needs to be done in a highly visual manner if it is to enjoy maximum impact.

The good news is that this is already starting to happen.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was recently published. Pages 27-44 visually depict the looming consequences of global warming, which represents a big improvement in making the complex scientific conclusions more accessible to people compared to past all-text communication.

Metaphors can help deepen the meaning

I once heard it said that metaphors force us to form mental pictures that affix to our memories and mainline directly to understanding.

This article from the The Boston Globe says that: “Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought.”

Rooted in our physical experience of the world, metaphors are ‘word pictures’ that help convince people of propositions by linking them to story ‘frames’ which already exist in our unconscious minds.

From divining Google search insights to asking the right questions through conventional public opinion research, there are many different ways to elicit metaphors, which are often drawn from seemingly unrelated fields.

By grooming metaphors into climate communication content, the cause of change can have the ability to stand for something that deeply resonates with people and is much more meaningful to them.

The narrative needs to be framed

Framing the climate story so that people think and act differently will be crucial (and probably one of the most important areas for academic research to help guide the tack taken).

PR people need to position issues all the time for their clients and I think as a profession we have an instinctive grasp of how to frame a story to create opportunities for the most convincing communication.

An interesting example of this is what Deborah Scott Anderson – who has a career background in PR – is doing with her Climate Gardens initiative: “Climate Gardens promotes awareness of climate change based on the visual evidence of changing weather patterns and confused growing seasons in gardens and green spaces.” Or, the way I see it, gardens and green spaces provide people with personal ‘frames’ through which they can directly perceive the effects of climate change.

Audiences could also be ‘primed’

I need to caution that while I’ve done a lot of reading about priming, I don’t pretend to be a credentialed expert. Still, there is clearly a range of techniques that – depending on what research finds – could be used to help overcome some of the many vexing cognitive ‘blinders’ that prevent humans from intuitively grasping the pressing threat of climate change.

The ‘six principles’ can be applied

Dr. Robert Cialdini’s six principals of persuasion have been scientifically proven and should be used in climate communication because they have been repeatedly demonstrated as effective. Number 3. – ‘Social Proof’ – would seem very applicable to creating popular momentum for mass climate change activism.

Relentless repetition will be necessary

There is a tendency in corporate communication to believe that when you’ve uttered something once, then you’ve put a proposition ‘on the record’ and you can then move on to talking about something else. But any research I’ve seen suggests that you need to engage in frequent repetition – ideally from multiple sources – in order to get a specific proposition to ‘sink in’ with the public mind.

An ‘ecumenical’ and uniting approach is ideal

In some countries (especially in America), climate change is a polarizing political ‘spectrum issue’ and so communication efforts should not be needlessly limited by insisting upon an ideological ‘litmus test.’ Calling for a reduction in carbon emissions and advocating renewable energy are relatively uncontroversial. But if, for example, we insist that people oppose nuclear power or need to ditch the capitalist system as part of the solution, then I think achieving what will be a necessary consensus across the widest possible swathe of public opinion will become much more difficult.

Thinking about ‘the future self’ could help overcome temporal distortions

In my last climate change post, I wrote about the incompatibility of the gradual long-term nature of the warming threat and how humans are wired to perceive what’s vivid in the short-term. What I’ve learned lately is that when individuals think about their ‘future selves,’ they are better able to make wise decisions in their longer-term interests through everyday behavior. Climate change communication should tell the tale keeping this temporal consideration in mind.

Deny the deniers any attention

A few years ago I was influenced by this article in The Washington Post, which said that: “The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.”

To this day, there is a belief in some PR quarters that ‘rapid response’ to ‘correct the record’ will win public opinion battles, but I think that’s outmoded thinking. Instead of making the negative propositions of critics more famous, I agree with this observation from the same Post article: “Rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.”

Being positive and hopeful should help galvanize

Like many others, I’m not convinced that fear-based appeals about a dystopian future will work in the short-term (although longer-term as frighteningly negative climate impacts become more obvious perhaps that will change). Emphasizing opportunities and giving people credible reasons to believe that their attitudes and choices actually matter could help increase their efficacy (the present lack of which is a major inhibitor of public association with, and activism on, climate change). Along these lines, I note that the United Nations is now referring to “the many opportunities to put the world on a safer and more resilient path.”

People need a rallying point

Global warming is such a complicated and massive problem; people need to know that there is something clear and simple that they can do to personally help solve the problem. I’m not sure what that should be yet (research will help inform the answer to that question), but the need for it seems obvious enough.

I reckon that any communications campaign needs to stimulate people to send a message: to their leaders that they expect action against climate change; to their communities that they are concerned about climate change and are publicly allied with the cause; and, to the companies whose products and services they buy that they expect corporations to do their part in making the needed changes for the better.

Starting with ‘why’ seems a good idea

I’m a new fan of Simon Sinek, who wrote the excellent Start with Why and delivered this mesmerizing presentation. His ‘golden circle’ approach I think could well guide the creation of ‘the master narrative’ for climate communications:


The bottom-line

I’ve heard it said many times that the only things you should worry about in life are: (a) things that matter; and, (b) things that you control. We have our work cut out for us in convincing people through communication that climate change meets both criteria.

Communication can be one of the powerful tools people have to pursue a great calling to help solve our toughest problem.

The sensibility should be: “I must speak up. We’d better do something!”

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Categories: climate change
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Communicating crowdsourcing

April 9th, 2014 / 6:00 am

I learned a lot of new ideas at the Crowdsourcing Week global conference in Singapore (I serve on their advisory board). On April 9th, I spoke at the event via moderating a panel on crowdsourced innovation in healthcare. Here I am with the crowdsourcing guru Epi Ludvik Nekaj:


I believe that understanding crowdsourcing and the ‘sharing society’ is essential for next-generation corporate and cause communicators. It has become one of my real passions and I am continuously stimulated by a very bright, diverse and interesting community of people from around the world.


Categories: blog, crowdsourcing
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Overseas communications for Chinese multinationals

March 20th, 2014 / 2:00 pm

I was honoured to speak in Beijing to the China Going Global Think Tank summit on the topic of “Overseas corporate communications for Chinese companies: promoting image > protecting reputation.”

Over 12 years in the region, I have specialized in global marketing communications for Asian multinationals. With 89 Chinese companies on the Fortune 500 – with few of them known at all beyond their domestic market – telling their story internationally is the most exciting marketing work to be done these days. This will be the first generation of new multinationals that will become world famous through social media.


Categories: blog, China, speaking platforms
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BBC World News live TV interview

January 22nd, 2014 / 7:30 am

I enjoyed being interviewed at the anchor desk by Newsday co-host Babita Sharma on that controversial ANA television advertisement. While the ad only aired in Japan, courtesy of social media it went ‘viral’ overseas. This is the latest example – if we needed one – of how digital technology applied to marketing is erasing the boundaries between the ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ domains.

Doing live television is a high-pressure situation for most people, but I think for communications consultants it is especially stressful. Why? Because our clients look to us as experts in media relations (and we coach them to do effective interviews), so we had better perform at the kind of level they would expect!



Categories: publicity
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Visualizing the rise and fall of marketing monikers

December 10th, 2013 / 1:06 am

Lately I’ve had great fun playing with the Ngram Viewer, which visualizes the presence of keywords and phrases used in the countless books which Google has scanned in recent times. Given all the turmoil lately in the marketing world (in my case the PR industry) about which labels to use in describing our services, I thought it would be interesting to see how the different monikers have trended over the years (from 1900 until 2008, the most recent year available):

Marketing monikers in books since 1900

What I notice is the relentless rise of ‘marketing,’ which eclipsed ‘advertising’ decades ago. I was delighted to note the continuing – if declining – popularity of ‘publicity,’ a retro expression many in PR abandoned but that I have continued to enjoy using throughout my career (which started around 1990). ‘PR’ and ‘public relations’ remain subordinate to other expressions (including ‘publicity’), with the former having edged ahead of the latter in the early 1980s. ‘Public relations’ peaked in the late 1950s, the same decade when many of today’s great global consultancies were founded.

The significance of all this?

Possibly very little, except to underline the staying power of categories in the public mind which we should be careful about casually discarding with the advent of ‘digital.’ That term and ‘social media’ hadn’t really penetrated books that much by 2008, so it will be interesting to run a new Ngram a few years from now to gauge the extent of their ascendancy in common parlance.


Categories: PR industry, technology
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The climate change PR disaster

October 22nd, 2013 / 6:00 am

[Click here to download this article in .pdf format]

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.’

Climate change in the headline news

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 (as tracked by Google Trends in this graph), 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 so far (in no particular order):

Story fatigue

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.

Temporal distortion

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.

The contrast effect

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…

The die is cast

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.’

‘It’s too big and I’m too small’

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.

Framing issues

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?

Wearing digital blinders

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!”).

Cut-off from the country

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.

Confirmation bias

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.

Denial efforts

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.

Saving a happy face

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 unappealingly 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?

The complexity mire

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 now willing or able to focus on a single 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.

Connecting too many dots

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.

Acting like the proverbial ostrich

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).

“I’ll be dead by then”

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.

Too ‘academic’

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).

Analogue communications for the digital age

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.

In writing this, 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.’

Where are the PR people?

I have been tracking the topic of climate change communications for months and what I’ve noticed is the almost complete dearth 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 PRs 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.

OK, so what can we do?

Well, if it were so easy to know the answer to that question, then perhaps we would have already amassed an impressive track record.

In my next blog post I will be sharing some modest suggestions – mine and from others – for what PR people can do to play their part to help achieve drastically improved climate change communications.

Every day, many thousands of corporate communicators around the world help motivate the opinions and actions of billions of consumers we persuade on behalf of famous global brands. We can apply our vast experience and influential capabilities in the service of climate change awareness and activism.

We need to sound the alarm, break through the barriers and focus attention. By connecting communities, creating convincing content, and convening conversations, we can help massively improve the quality and effectiveness of climate change communication.

We humans could not be wired worse when it comes to perceiving and dealing with a threat like global warming. Overcoming all the cognitive biases and practical obstacles I’ve outlined here will not be easy no matter how wonderful the public relations.

Yet particularly when social media is becoming the world’s new central nervous system and is fostering an emerging collective global consciousness, I think PR can help inform, influence and inspire as never before.


Categories: blog, climate change
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Humanitarianism in the network age

June 14th, 2013 / 3:42 am

I was honoured to speak recently in Bangkok [pictures here] at the Asia-Pacific unveiling of ‘Humanitarianism in the Network Age’ (HINA), a groundbreaking new United Nations social media study.

HINA examines the implications for how a world of increasingly informed, connected and self-reliant communities will affect the delivery of humanitarian aid. It lays out some of the most pertinent features of these new technologies, such as SMS, social media and others, and identifies the opportunities and difficulties in applying them.

With so much social media content published by multinational corporations aimed at marketing to affluent consumers, I find this excellent report refreshing because it addresses the aspirations and interests of many millions of people who don’t normally make it into the everyday digital story frame.

Categories: Asia, social media
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The marketing might of modern public relations

March 26th, 2013 / 4:06 am

On March 23rd I was honoured to address the Bangladesh Brand Forum seminar in Dhaka.

In my presentation, I argued that:

  • social media is revolutionizing the way the world communicates and it is powering the public relations industry’s global ascendancy
  • in Asia, PR has traditionally been a relatively minor and subordinate part of the marketing mix but now it increasingly occupies centre stage
  • because public relations is at its essence a social networking business, it is well positioned to thrive in the digital domain, especially in a region where mobile communications are the new marketing battleground
  • media relations and publicity will always be a key part of PR, but now creating content, building communities, understanding analytics and applying the psychology of persuasion are all part of the picture
  • PR will always be about the art of relationships, but increasingly it is a measurable communications science

The marketing might of modern public relations from Robert Pickard

Categories: Asia, PR industry
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Guest lecture at SMU on Asia social media

February 14th, 2013 / 3:50 am

At the invitation of my friend Dr. Michael Netzley, I recently delivered this presentation at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business in Singapore Management University on the topic of “Digital and social media across Asia-Pacific markets.” It provides a general overview of digital dynamics in Asia-Pacific and outlines some communications approaches designed to resonate with social media communities.

Digital and social media across Asia-Pacific markets from Robert Pickard

Categories: social media
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An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’

January 10th, 2013 / 2:50 am

If there’s one topic that seems to stimulate the passions of Asia-based executives working for Western multinationals, it is the ‘curse’ of late night conference calls inflicted upon them by usually a North American head office.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for quite some time, but I am finally prompted to post after a conversation over drinks with a friend of mine last night who is head of corporate affairs in Asia for a major US multinational.

She pushed back recently when her company’s headquarters asked her to be on a regular call at 10 p.m. Singapore time (which is 9 a.m. Eastern time in North America). When I heard this, I felt she was quite right to have done so in the reasonable and polite way that she described. But I know from personal experience that it is never easy to resist even radically nocturnal calls when the headquarters insists, and nobody wants to seem like they are somehow being ‘difficult.’ A more equitable time for these calls – mutually but fairly inconvenient – would be 7 or 8 a.m. or p.m. at both ends.

Of course the corporate headquarters of a truly global firm should not casually impose these ‘command performance’ late night calls in the first place for routine purposes. That said, nobody gainsays doing these for matters that are actually urgent. I’ve been in the client service business for more than 20 years and will always do calls with customers day or night especially in case of emergency. Indeed, I’ve created 24×7 crisis communications telephone hotlines to help facilitate around-the-clock instant accessibility.

The calls that rub many executives on this side of the Pacific the wrong way are the regular ones scheduled at midmorning for headquarters and midevening or even towards midnight for Asia. In North America the people on the call are starting their day well rested. Their kids are probably off to school and they are usually at work during normal office hours. Meanwhile, over here in Asia, it is well beyond the end of what has already been a very long day during what should ideally be personal time. There could be kids to put down for the night and possibly a spouse annoyed that a family evening is lost.

Sometimes the scheduling of asymmetrical calls is ‘suggested’ but often they are just announced and set without prior consultation. This is sometimes done unwittingly out of ignorance, by people who just aren’t mindful of the time zones. However, sometimes it is not, and the subordinate Asia end is just supposed to go along with it.

Such an arbitrary approach of course does not make morale soar among the Asians. The unstated message being sent from North America is ‘we are headquarters and you will do things at our convenience’ and ‘your time – especially your personal time – is not as important as our time.’

In the end, I believe that a subsidiary in Asia should dutifully follow the preferences of headquarters. However, if companies want to say that they are ‘global’ in rhetoric then surely they should act that way in reality as they communicate with their own colleagues.

If Western companies want to be serious about ‘getting Asia right’ (even if this is a merely minor symbolic gesture internally), then they should treat their Asian colleagues with more respect and courtesy in the setting of these calls. ‘Eastern’ is an important time zone in North America but Eastern is also the direction of economic power in this world and so Asian time should command the same consideration. This seems especially valid when we’re seeing stories like this one in the media it seems just about every day reporting that “By 2030 Asia will overtake North America and Europe combined in global power.”

In the great scheme of things, irksome ‘midnight oil’ conference calls are not exactly a major corporate issue, but we North Americans better get used to the rise of Asia and this is just one small way to get with the new program in terms of how we go about things.

[I must provide the disclaimer that I’m not referring to any one company or client in the post above but just drawing on many experiences with this my eleventh year in Asia-Pacific. I should also add that I think the situation is improving, especially aided by executive mobility via trans-Pacific talent transfers].

Categories: management
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