January 20, 2015
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Interview on climate change communication and the ‘PR disaster’ of global warming

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Recently I was interviewed by Karolina Marolt of the Slovenian Marketing Magazine on the topic of ‘Climate change communications and the PR disaster of global warming’ which is also the theme of my speech to the 6th World Communication Forum in Davos this March 10th. The resulting Slovenian language article is based on the original English email interview conducted below:

At WCF in Davos you will have a speech about climate change communications and the ‘PR disaster’ of global warming. It has been a year since you first published a blog post on that matter and a few months since you have published a follow-up with advice on what we can do about it. So do you notice any change in global warming communication since then – or is it perhaps too soon?

What I am noticing is that now more and more people are openly talking about how climate change has an infamous public relations problem. Finding a solution to global warming will require better communication and we have a large community of untapped PR talent ready to roll in service of this task. What we need now is bold leadership and ample money for this cause and thus far, we’ve had neither. It’s true that there is robust climate communication coming from the UN and institutions like the World Bank, but neither of these worthy efforts takes this issue to the required level. Inside our own PR trade community, the lack of a courageous stand from global agency chiefs has been appalling and our industry can and should do much better. 

I think we’ve entered a new phase in climate communication because the issue is no longer being seen as a ‘debate’ between two sides, each with legitimate arguments. Deniers are finally being tuned-out. In the media, people who were formerly known as ‘climate skeptics’ are being labelled as deniers of climate change, if indeed they are interviewed at all. My own view is that inside PR firms, carbon accounts like oil and gas will soon be as uncool to work on as serving on tobacco accounts became a generation ago.

In your follow-up you write about importance of frequent repetition of the message to sink in with the public. But there is a problem you mentioned in the original piece that the global warming issue has become part of a routinised ‘new normal,’ thus not exciting any more. So how do you think the issue should be presented in order to stay at the peak of importance and thus able to send the message across to the public?

As increasing numbers of people come to experience the changed climate and reflect on how 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded in human history, they can start to project dire consequences, picturing what happens in a world of runaway warming in terms of sea level rise, ocean acidification, threats to the food supply, dangerous extreme weather, political instability, and so on. I have seen new visualisation tools online which help people understand what’s happening (e.g. here’s one from NASA showing ‘a year in the life of CO2’ http://news.yahoo.com/nasa-simulation-shows-a-year-in-the-life-of-earth-s-co2-190708986.html?soc_src=mediacontentstory&soc_trk=fb). But perhaps the most effective story frames are actual photographs of drought and floods and radical weather events which affect real people who you can see in the picture. I also note that many more senior corporate and military leaders – who come across as much more credible compared to civilian politicians – are starting to talk about what’s going to happen in tomorrow’s warming world, meaning that climate change is starting to break out of the ‘perception ghetto’ of being regarded as some kind of government or NGO issue.

How do you feel about using the global warming problems as part of personal publicity (so one would achieve his own personal or political goals)?

Well I haven’t seen many examples of this, but if there is alignment between an individual’s activity to achieve their personal goals which puts climate change on society’s agenda to solve, then that brings us one step closer to seeing effective collective action.

You have been working on communication markets across Asia and Northern America, are those international communications markets very different?

I’ve spent 12 years in Asia-Pacific and 12 years working in North America. There are many differences between these markets but fundamentally, I think communication works in a similar way across the Pacific. The most universal element is listening to people, which makes them know they are important to you, which therefore inspires them to be more inclined to like you, and then do and think what you are hoping they will do or think. As long as that process is transparent and permissions-based, it is ethical persuasion across geographic boundaries. 

But there are also radical differences. Language influences communication style and content, with the ‘high context’ languages of some Asian countries functioning far differently than English, which can be more ‘direct’ and asymmetrical with the needs of the sender paramount. It if often very difficult for some Asian and Western people to converse without a lot of cultural bridge-building and mediation, because the way they are accustomed to communicate can be so unalike. I also think relationships operate differently, with the importance of proper introduction and getting to know each other well prior to transacting business far more fundamental in Asia (compared to America for example).

You also talk about the interest in a global communications campaign for global warming. What are the main challenges in such a big campaign which would extend over different communications markets?

A global communications campaign against climate change would of necessity need to be a campaign that asks people to think or do something which would be easy for them to understand and to act upon. Global warming is already a famous fact, so communication needs to create a ‘rallying point’ of inspiration where people can receive information that they can use or do something with. 

It’s hard enough to break through all the cognitive barriers humans have when it comes to them understanding climate change in the first place. But when you throw cultural differences into the mix, then there’s another layer of potential resistance to consider because otherwise the audience for any campaign could be needlessly limited. This is not a small problem, because marketers know how hard it is to get a message across to even one country where a broad cross-section of society then is convinced to believe or behave in consequence. The last time I checked, there were 193 countries in the United Nations, and within many of them – particularly the bigger ones – there is a staggering diversity. For all the globalisation we have seen, mankind is still a variegated species where we are less members of a global community and more like an extended community of local communities. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ cookie-cutter campaign would not be the way to go with global climate communications, not if we want everyone’s voice to be heard.

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