Ditch ‘warming’ and start talking ‘deteriorating atmosphere,’ PR firm says
The non-profit PR shop ecoAmerica finally released the findings of its public opinion research today, bringing a trove of information about how on-the-fence Americans respond to different messages about climate change and energy.
The firm conducted an impressive amount of research in February through March—focus groups, a phone survey, an online survey—all focused on finding better talking points for wooing folks who are undecided about this whole global warming/clean energy/green jobs business.
This was the report whose summary was accidently sent to a bunch of media outlets after a White House briefing from ecoAmerica in April, leading to a not-very-flattering story in the New York Times. The story suggested it’s cynical to try to sell the climate crisis the way you’d sell toothpaste, and it’s true that the report wholeheartedly embraces a public-relations way of looking at things:
Remember to speak in aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology.
The earnest English major in me is pitching a fit right now (“Gah! The truth doesn’t need talking points.”) Maybe you’ve got the same beef, but there’s fascinating stuff here. Think of it as “rhetoric” if that sits better than “PR.” For anyone who communicates about climate and energy, it’s worth reading the whole report, “Climate and Energy Truths: Our Common Future.” Here are a few highlights for starters:
- Ditch “global warming.” It makes people think of Al Gore more than anything else, too polarizing. “Climate change” is almost as bad. “Our deteriorating atmosphere” is the term soccer moms and other “environmental agnostics” respond to best, the report found.
- Likewise, people don’t want to hear about “cap-and-trade.” Too wonky. When you’re talking about cap-and-trade, call it “Clean Energy Dividend” or “Clean Energy Cash Back.” This fits a central theme of the report—the climate-action camp needs to learn how to translate think-tank language into kitchen-table language. To hear how this sounds in action, try out ecoAmerica’s blog post explaining the report.
- Even “renewable” and “alternative” energy are too vague. (Were you clear on the difference anyway?) Instead, talk about energy sources that run out and ones that don’t run out. Or energy sources you have to burn and ones you don’t have to burn.
- Talk about values, not facts.
- “Activating multiple values tends to be stronger than just invoking a single value.” Bring prosperity, national security, and personal health into your argument. The report doesn’t mention human rights or climate justice arguments—odd, since evangelicals have already shown they can rally behind this perspective.
- One the other hand, one good fact packs more punch than a string of facts. You don’t win people over with a relentless barrage of facts, says the report. That only muddles the brain. Somehow this connects to Joseph Stalin’s “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”
- For your one key fact, the report’s authors especially like the phrasing, “Local temperatures always fluctuate naturally. But when the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990, we have a problem.”
- Finally, the report says it would be a travesty to let the Right own “comprehensive energy solutions”. Show why your side, not theirs, is the true “all-of-the-above” option. As with everything else, it works better to stay on the offensive and make the other side defend their position.
OK, but the report doesn’t seem to acknowledge that most people have bull**** detectors that kick in at some point. Calling a cap-and-trade plan “clean energy cash back” makes it sound like you’re promising to create money out of thin air. You can call it a “free beer and hot wings” plan, but at some point, citizens are going to ask for more than spin.