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.
The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University has issued a call for grant proposals on CSR communication. The text of the call follows:
Page Legacy Scholar Grants: Call for Research Proposals
In today’s environment, corporate social responsibility has emerged as an important management concept. Publics expect companies to be engaged in responsible activities that make a significant contribution to communities and society. Though corporations have adopted more sustainable and responsible practices, they often struggle to communicate effectively about their CSR activities. Practitioners find that promoting environmental successes can be risky as they sometimes are met with skepticism or backlash from activist groups. Too, traditional methods of promoting community involvement or diversity may do little to bolster the reputation of the company.
The Arthur W. Page Center seeks grant proposals that address the issues of corporate social responsibility communication. Research projects should deepen the field’s understanding of the issues with a focus on real-world solutions for practitioners. Submissions should clearly demonstrate how the research will benefit the practice of public relations and how the authors intend to disseminate findings to the field. Grants will range from $1000 to $5000.
Possible topics include (but are not limited to):
- Measuring the impact of CSR communication
- Benefits of communicating about diversity in the corporate environment
- Leveraging community partnerships in communication
- Promoting corporate volunteer programs
- Building relationships with advocacy groups
- Communicating about environmental impacts
- Ethics of CSR communication
The research conducted from approved proposals will be evaluated for a special issue of a public relations journal on corporate social responsibility guest edited by the author of this call. Authors of successful submissions may be asked to participate in a webinar or conference panel and/or make their work available for distribution through a website on CSR.
Application materials must be received by the Page Center on or before January 10, 2013.