By Michael Shank
If you’re not sold on your climate message, the public won’t be either
This article is written by Dr. Michael Shank, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs.
In my last article for Apolitical, I wrote about the six “M’s” that make or break or ability to put sustainability on the agenda and move us away from the brink of climate disaster. In this article, I will give another six tips that you can use — as an environmentalist or a public servant — to convince people that climate action is important.
This is an obvious one but it’s too often overlooked. As a climate communicating community, we need to do better at tracking the news cycle, seizing the press moment, weighing in when an issue is trending, and responding within the hour/day to a news item.
When we wait, the better-staffed and better-funded fossil fuel lobby, and its paid deniers, comment in our absence. Cities need to be able to pivot quickly with a quote or comment if we want to be a part of the story. We can’t wait until tomorrow or next week to weigh in, nor can we afford to let bureaucratic political protocol get in the way of our ability to effect meaningful change. Seizing the press moment may mean circumventing the scheduled status quo.
It’s time for the unconventional, or as Al Gore put it in his latest film, it’s time to #BeInconvenient. And that may mean acting immediately, even if it inconveniences our day, dinner or other predetermined endeavours.
This point concerns the many alliances and compacts and networks out there working on climate change. There are many. The real question is how to best make use of their collective bargaining power.
Imagine the might mustered if all subnational groups out there came together under one effort, one campaign, one language. By coordinating communications, the climate threat could be well-emblazoned on the brains of the public citizenry. Frankly, any coordination would be an improvement. Imagine a monthly drumbeat of memes coming out of the climate community. One month could be all about sustainable diets, another month about zero waste, another month about sustainable fashion.
Focusing the world’s attention on one action, using the momentum of the entire subnational climate community (since that’s one we have more control over), and building a monthly momentum, using social media and messaging campaigns to support that action. The impact could be mighty.
People want to be part of a movement, as we’ve seen with the student movement globally. It’s attractive. They don’t want to go it alone when it comes to climate action. So, let’s give them a movement. Let them know they’re not alone.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. And then repeat some more, especially with climate science and climate action.
Keep it simple, then drumbeat the heck out of it. It may seem elementary, but it’s the very thing that’ll create a connection for the consumer, constituent or costumer. There’s lots to be done on the climate front, almost too much for most people.
Climate advocates could take a lesson from what’s trending in the advertising space
So, to avoid overwhelm or anxiety, keep the ask clear, concise and constantly reiterated. People need to hear it a half-dozen times from the messenger before it starts to sink in. Don’t be afraid of repeating. We do this all the time when it comes to other threats, such as terrorism. We shouldn’t be afraid to do this with our climate campaigns. It should be in every speech, every press event, every action taken, and every campaign.
Find ways to reflect back what your community is doing — on your website, in your communication materials, in your speeches — so that they feel affirmed and featured in their climate action and so that they don’t feel alone while doing it (which also speaks to the previous point about building a movement). Build out a page on your website that solely features — using pictures, video, testimonials — the incredible climate action and activities that your community members are taking and doing.
Feature a citizen of the week or month and provide positive accolades online and in print material and speeches so that they feel affirmed and validated for doing the right thing. The more they see themselves valued by the city, the more people will want to do the work and reap the same positive reward.
The art of distraction. It is what magicians do all the time. And it is what Geico, an insurance company based in the U.S., does brilliantly in its commercials (watch some here). Much of a Geico ad spot’s air time isn’t spent selling insurance, it’s spent entertaining and distracting the viewer. Only at the end does the ad make the ask clear. Climate advocates could take a lesson from what’s trending in the advertising space.
The ultimate litmus test for any outreach campaign should be “how would I or my friends or family respond?”
Too often we lead with the ask, the sale, without first entertaining the viewer with a little magic, a little fun. The public wants to enjoy the experience so let’s give them something to enjoy. We don’t have to always lead with what’s serious and substantive. We can tap into the sarcastic and sardonic, and even sexy, to sell our climate wares. In fact, we need to. That’s what people are looking for.
Now, for our last M. A final check on our campaign before launching. The ultimate litmus test for any outreach campaign should be “how would I or my friends or family respond?” to such a campaign.
What we, ourselves, like on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, for example, and what the public tends to like, should guide our communications work. Too often we pursue and plan press work that fits a prescribed mould — i.e. what’s been done in the past and what we think we should do — yet it often fails to resonate with the public. If we honestly vet any outreach plan using our own lens (i.e. would we attend such a conference or call to action?), we’ll come a lot closer to efficacy. By mimicking what and how the masses communicate and activate, we make clearer the clarion call for climate action because it’s in a language that they’re already using and understanding.
There are many more “M’s” out there, to be sure. Hopefully, while reading this, another M came to mind that was missed above. Like “Metrics” for measuring progress, or “Money” for making progress possible — both equally vital to a campaign’s success.
There’s a 13th M that I’ve discussed before. I’ve talked about “Meet-Ups” to encourage cities to meet with reporters and build relationships with the press. Ultimately, all of this above rests on relationships. That’s especially true when it comes to working with the press.
A reporter is much more inclined to run with a story if there’s some pre-text, some history, before the press pitch. Subnational leaders, and mayors especially, should be sitting down with the climate reporters and overviewing their city’s emissions and waste reduction strategies, not shying away from identifying the challenges as part of that process.
We need to be a lot more honest and transparent with public storytelling regarding what’s working and what’s not working. There is a tendency among some subnational leaders to wait until a project or product is perfect before going to the press. But that often prevents or precludes the opportunity for reporters to be a part of the process and to translate that process for the public. Meeting up regularly, for coffee or lunch, will help bridge this gap and reframe reporters as allies not antagonists (as some leaders view them) in this work.
But these 12 M’s above will get us started and get us a little closer to capturing the attention of the publics that we’re trying to motivate and mobilise. If every climate campaign going forward integrates at least half of the ideas above, we’ll see a stronger environmental movement emerge. One that tracks closely to what the publics find compelling and one that finds itself more powerful among policymakers and the press. This is all very doable. None of the M’s are out of reach, even for cashless campaigns. All 12 M’s are manageable. Now it’s time to move on them. — Michael Shank