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Communicating on Climate Change Getting the messaging right

Climate change is such a broad subject, it’s not surprising that it has many conflicting messages attached to it. This invariably creates complexities for those of us running climate change engagement programmes.

Consider the following:

Sentiment versus fact: In communications on environmental issues, there is no absence of either, but whereas some people are motivated by sentiment, others are more motivated by fact. A good communications strategy needs a combination of the two.

Personal experiences and the bigger picture: The message must have personal relevance – but not at the expense of the main issue. People should be encouraged to input on the design of new cycle routes – but they should also be aware of the depleted polar ice caps.
Experiences vary: recent research by IPOS MORI demonstrated that in Colombia, South Africa, Chile, Peru, India and Malaysia, over 80% of the population said that if their government does not act now on climate change, it will be failing them. Meanwhile in Germany, the US, Sweden and the Netherlands, the figure was less than 60%: presumably a reflection of relative experiences of global warming.

Changing behaviour through both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’: There’s certainly both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ in climate change communications: encouraging walking, cycling and public transport, while discouraging unnecessary journeys and unclean fuels for example. A positive campaign should encourage good behaviour but avoid shaming hypocrisy.
The need for both individual and collective responsibility: We need to focus on both individual experiences and the bigger picture. Our unusually sunny summer was part of the same warming trend that ignited California and Australia’s wildfires, but to many the connection wasn’t clear.

Mitigation and adaptation as solutions: Mitigation and adaptation may require some explaining. It’s also important to communicate the fact that they aren’t mutually exclusive – neither one will solve the problem. Both are required to tackle the issue successfully.

So what can communications professionals do to make sense of these conflicting messages?

Importantly, we must acknowledge that they exist. Some dichotomy is inevitable in such a complex scenario.

Where possible, we should opt for a suitable balance – for example, of adaptation and mitigation solutions – as audiences will respond differently. Adaptation requires pragmatism, rationale and a broad understanding; mitigation is invariably more emotionally-driven. But both are relevant.

Delivery of the messages must be finely tuned. Messages must be real; they must balance emotional understanding and scientific fact, avoid technical jargon, and where appropriate, use data to back up facts. It is important to avoid being too sensationalist. To claim that each successive summer is getting hotter, for example, is inaccurate and threatens to destroy the credibility of the overall message.

Consider using trusted voices. Since the Covid-19 crisis, doctors (today’s new super heros) and scientists (officially the most trusted profession) are increasingly seen as opinion formers. In fact they’ve recently called on world leaders to ensure a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. And they will be listened to.

And finally, while top-line messages must remain consistent, language, tone and means of communicating them will change depending upon the audience.

In my experience, the answer to most communications questions comes back to strategy: if you get your research, issues analysis and stakeholder mapping right and adapt the strategy as the situation changes, you have a secure basis upon which to form an engagement programme.

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