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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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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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The PR industry remains strong

October 8th, 2012 / 12:38 am

[The following draft is a rough translation into English from the article above which appeared in Bisnis Indonesia]

The public relations industry is a relatively new line of business which is seeing swift growth, especially in the Asia-Pacific region as most multinational companies are partnering with PR firms in building their communication to the mass media as well as to the public. Bisnis Indonesia had an opportunity to meet with President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific Bob Pickard to gain some insights on the PR industry’s competition in the region.

How do you see the development of the PR industry in Asia-Pacific?

We see that there is a tremendous growth of the PR industry in Asia-Pacific. We recognize that there are three things that were traditionally imported from West to East. The first is money invested in communications campaigns, the second is ideas, and the third is talent. But now Asia-Pacific exports all three of these things – here we have the money, the diverse ideas and a lot of human resources. There are many Asia-based multinational companies that have developed into big global players, and it creates a major market for the PR industry in Asia.

How much does a company usually spends for communication strategy?

Many companies in Asia-Pacific spend $1 million or more every year for public relations programs, covering the entire region. For instance, if a company which is headquartered in one country has branches in some other countries, such a budget would covers PR activities for all the markets.  However, there are also companies which would spend $250,000 per year for their regional PR activities.

What is the strategy usually used by a PR company in order to reach their markets?

Currently, we are seeing a change in the communication model. Previously, the number of media outlets was so limited that every company tried to tell their story only through mainstream media. But now, social media is growing. It really helps PR companies deliver the clients’ message to the public.

Furthermore, communications built between companies and their stakeholders is no longer a one-way street, but more of a two way conversation. In the social media sphere, people can easily share any input with companies. In this context, every PR firm has to listen to what the clients need, understand the target audiences that they want to reach and also incorporate input from media before they can create effective strategies.

Do you think competition in the PR industry is tight enough?

There are hundreds of PR companies these days and some of them are located in Indonesia. This surely creates competition among the firms, especially in terms of the budget levels proposed to the clients. There are relatively small PR companies which would normally compete on price, while there are also PR firms that play at the higher level and compete on quality. Such firms provide premium thinking such as building a corporate reputation, handling CSR activities and they also become commercial consultants for the clients. Competition in the PR industry is not excessive. There is still a lot of room to develop. The PR industry is at a relatively early stage of development, unlike advertising which is already a more mature business.

With respect to price competition, does this pose a significant threat to big PR companies?

Not at all, in fact it provides opportunities for PR companies to be established and to thrive. The presence of new [Asian] PR firms provides new ideas that the more established PR firms should learn from.

Does each PR firm need to have special skills?

It is ideal for a PR firm to have the capability to meet the clients’ needs in all sectors. Nevertheless, PR firms need to build deep experience and knowledge by domain. In our experience, we don’t just cater to one sector or a single industry, but we do try to extend expertise across geography and practice (that includes building our networks with governments). This is crucial to build reputation and trust in a PR firm.

What needs to be done by a PR firm in order to grow?

Try to see how it was 20 years ago, before social media arrived on the scene. Brands from companies could only become worldwide because they were published in traditional media. The change has been very rapid. Currently, rising Asian companies are becoming top global brands because they utilize social media platforms. PR firms cannot escape from this evolution and they have to use social media as a strategy to drive clients’ communications. One day, there might be an Indonesian company which builds a truly international brand on a social media platform.

Categories: PR industry
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Asia-Pacific social media influence

February 20th, 2012 / 1:37 pm

Categories: digital
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New infographic of India’s digital scene

July 9th, 2011 / 2:16 am

Categories: infographics
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New infographic of China’s Internet landscape

July 4th, 2011 / 5:41 am

Categories: infographics
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Digital Storytelling for Asian Multinationals

January 27th, 2011 / 8:30 am

Today at Singapore Management University, in a class convened by Professor Michael Netzley, I was honoured to speak about digital storytelling for Asian multinationals.

Worldwide communications for these emerging corporate champions is powering Burson-Marsteller’s business forward in Asia-Pacific on a profoundly digital platform.

Categories: Asia
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