Whatever you think about the Cancun Agreements, there's no doubt that the climate movement needs to up its game in 2011. Pledges currently on the table will only take us about halfway to the kind of future any of us would want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren. Most importantly, we need to think about how to ignite stronger public support for climate action in a range of countries.
I had the wonderful opportunity in Cancun to participate in a panel discussion with Ted Turner, Philippe Cousteau and others on communicating climate change to the public. Based on my own international campaign experience (going on 30 years), I would argue that there are some fundamental approaches to communications which transcends cultural or national boundaries.
Simply put, effective communication strategies must meet the following criteria:
1. They're not just media plans. They use a wide range of communication channels which mutually reinforce each other, and in addition to traditional media, they aim to reach the public through direct communication, social media and viral video, print & web ad placement, public events, and popular media channels like film, television and music.
2. They're multi-sensory and emotionally engaging. The more senses stimulated, the more powerful the results. This is why images have the power to communicate what the written word alone does not, and why music has historically had such an important place in the anti-war and civil rights movements of decades past.
3. They tell a Story. We still live in a story telling culture. Events and narratives described in a story format are far more compelling and engaging than the recitation of arguments and facts. According to Drew Westen in his mind-blowing book, The Political Brain:
Research suggests that our minds naturally search for stories with a particular kind of structure, readily recognizable to elementary school children, and similar across cultures. A coherent story has an initial state or setting ("Once upon a time..."), protagonists, a problem that sets up what will be the central plot or storyline, obstacles that stand in the way, often a clash between the protagonists trying to solve the problem and those who stand in their way or fail to help, and a denouement, in which the problem is ultimately resolved ("And they lived happily ever after").
Many climate narratives which focus on the threat, the perpetrators, and the powerful moral dimensions of the story fail to help the public imagine what a happy ending to the story might look like, and how that ending might actually come about.
4. They have a simple message. A communications strategy is about what is sent, received and understood. The more complicated the story, the more likely it is to get mangled as it gets translated across different media. This will be familiar to anyone who played "telephone" or "Chinese whispers" as a child. People are far more likely to remember and be moved by a powerful principled stance than by detailed policy positions -- by metaphor more than by numbers.
5. They are strategic and targeted. Campaigners must get better at pinpointing key decision-makers and what mostly directly influences them. We need to get inside their heads, and start from where they are, not from where we think they should be. We need to understand their values, motivations, behaviors and attitudes and tell the story in ways they can relate to. People tend to listen to those they perceive as being like them, people who share their values and concerns -- the messenger is as important as the message. And we need to think more clearly about where they get their information. Are they reading The Nation or Garden & Gun?
6. They foster a dialogue and invite public participation. Speaking on behalf of the public is no longer sufficient. When decision-makers hear from the public directly they are far more likely to act. A good communications strategy will empower the public by linking the public directly to the people who can fix the problem. Avaaz for example, is founded on this principle and not surprisingly is growing by leaps and bounds.
Others have written their own campaign guidelines but I would encourage people to share their advice and experience in the comments below. What do you think is the best way to see a breakthrough in the way we communicate and campaign about the complex issue of climate change? Leave your comments below!
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