environmental communication

Melting ice caps or asthmatic children: The challenge of framing the consequences of global warming

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NPR ran a great story this week on communicating about global warming. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public doesn’t react as strongly to messages about melting ice caps and endangered polar bears as they do to threats to their own health and the health of their children. So, what does this mean for sustainability communicators? It means that we might be using the wrong frames to motivate environmentally responsible behaviors.

Do the symbols that we use for global warming miss the mark?

We know that those who already care about an issue like global warming are more likely to pay attention and act on relevant messages, but that doesn’t help us motivate those who don’t care. The NPR article raises the possibility of tapping into the emotions of those who are apathetic about climate change, by connecting the issue with the reality of public health.

Another interesting issue that the article raised was the credibility of those who typically promote environmental messages (politicians, environmental activists, journalists, etc.) vs. healthcare workers. Health officials, as the article says, are trusted more than other sources, and as a result their messages are more readily accepted. Considering this, environmental groups might find partnerships with health officials to be more effective than celebrity endorsements (not to diminish the effectiveness of this strategy with youth) to raise awareness of the consequences of environmental damage.

As the article suggests, not everyone agrees that health and environment can be linked in this way, but one of the main proponents for this new strategy, Matt Nisbet, is quoted in the article. You can read more about his thoughts on communicating about climate change in an upcoming book that I edited with Lee Ahern titled Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. The scheduled publication date is mid-October. More to come.

As a side note: Research that I conducted with Lee Ahern through the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University looked at 30 years of environmental communication and found that ads tended to position environmental actions as good for the earth (rather than warning that lack of actions would lead to harm to the earth). And, the ads advocated for taking action (recycling, signing a petition, etc.) rather than conserving (using less water or electricity). See more articles about findings from this project here and here.

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Sustainability communication strategies: the good and the bad

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I’ve been reading through a series of articles on CR communication by AHA! found on the Triple Pundit website. Jen Boynton offers some interesting insights in her articles Why Communication Should be at the Heart of Any CSR Strategy, 5 Reasons Why You Need a CSR Communications Roadmap, and Top 10 Mistakes in CSR Communication on how CR communication can help an organization meet its sustainable business objectives.  A few points resonated with me and fall in line with research I’m conducting with sustainability communicators at large corporations in the US. This group of passionate communicators loves to talk about their companies’ sustainability efforts, but they’re also candid about the struggles of communicating complex issues to sometimes apathetic and sometimes hostile audiences.

So, here are a few thoughts that I would pass along from Boynton’s articles and from my own experiences. First, if you’ve done something, say it. I’m always surprised when sustainability reputation and reality don’t match. In fact, I’ve talked with a number of companies that the public ranks poorly in sustainability, but the real numbers tell another story. In this case, the companies need to be the ones telling the story. But, often these organizations are afraid of greenwashing, so they err on the side of working quietly behind the scenes. Though this is an honorable approach to sustainability activities, it isn’t helping the companies gain the reputation that they deserve. Transparency can help prevent greenwashing and still let companies tell their story.

However, let’s be honest; not everyone cares about your sustainability efforts as much as you do. Frankly, most people only pay attention when a company is causing harm to the environment. They really don’t care that the company reduced its carbon impact or uses less water in its production processes. They just expect that kind of activity from corporations. So, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to reach a broad audience with messages of sustainable business practices may not be the best use of resources. Rather, these audiences may want to know about your cause marketing efforts toward environmental issues.

But, some audiences do care. Advocacy groups, local government leaders, community members, and employees want to know about the efforts companies are making to minimize their impact on the environment, so take time to talk with these audiences and listen to what they have to say about your actions. This will build trust and openness in the relationship and lead to long-term gains in reputation.