Clean energy messaging 101: ‘Green’ jobs are out, ‘clean energy’ jobs are in

As readers know, I try to stay up-to-date on messaging, which is why I have a whole category devoted to rhetoric.

I have now sat through a couple of extended presentations about clean energy and climate messaging from people who definitely know how to do this sort of thing.  I will present some of the results in a series of posts.

One general theme emerges, I think, which is really Messaging 101:  Be specific.

“Green jobs” is not specific and requires people to fill in the blank depending on what the word “green” means to them.  For some, this apparently means “environmental jobs” as opposed to real jobs for regular folks.

Clean energy jobs” is much better (according to multiple sources).  People have a much better notion of what clean energy is.

The same goes for “renewable energy” or “renewables.”  Interestingly, for different reasons, I had blogged a year ago that it was Time to stop using the phrase “renewable energy.”

At the time, I was mostly making that proposal because people tend to lump renewables altogether as one solution.  The term “renewable energy” is often used by the media and conservatives to give lip service to clean energy sources “” by shoving them all together like sardines in order to trivialize them or diminish their individual potential. For instance, the “bunch of bland old guys” (aka U.S. Chamber of Commerce) had just one bullet for renewables (and one for efficiency), thereby making them equivalent to expanded domestic oil and gas production, expanded nuclear production, and “clean coal”.

But the messaging gurus say that renewable energy — or even worse, the meaningless “alternative energy” — are a no go.  They like the phrase “clean, safe sources of energy that never run out,” which certainly has the benefit of being a bunch of short words with clear meaning.

They also suggest being specific, saying “wind and solar energy” or “wind and solar and geothermal.”  I’d recommend the whole kit and caboodle, “wind and solar and geothermal and biomass and hydro power,” if not  “wind and solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal and geothermal and biomass and hydro power.”

The point is, we have multiple clean, safe sources of energy that never run out.  The other side doesn’t have one.

Let me end with the big caveat:  None of this is scientifically rigorous.  Is there any controlled study on whether a phrase that gets a positive response in a “dial group” is actually more persuasive or more memorable than a phrase that gets a negative response?  In fact, I’ve been told that some phrases people give a negative response to actually turn out to be very effective messaging strategies.  That said, Frank Luntz proved that poll-tested replacement phrases like “death tax” work when repeated to death.

You can decide for yourself how much — if any — of this stuff you use.


16 Responses to Clean energy messaging 101: ‘Green’ jobs are out, ‘clean energy’ jobs are in

  1. James Newberry says:

    What about sustainable agriculture substituting for factory food production, reported to contribute 30% of greenhouse heating gases overall. This includes behavioral change like local farmers markets and a less meat intensive diet along with billions of taxpayer savings by reducing socially damaging handouts to big agribusiness, including corn.

    Atomic fission is a problem, not a solution. We will not solve a biospheric contamination problem by substituting one foolish source (hydrocarbons on fire) for another (mining, concentrating and fissioning uranium).

  2. MarkB says:

    I’m not sure if “clean energy jobs” is entirely inclusive. What about energy efficiency? What about jobs that are focused on creating carbon sinks?

  3. oxnardprof says:

    How about ‘sustainable energy’? Has the term sustainability reached deeply enough into the public consciusness?

    It seems like the short word length but long list of words is cumbersome. I think it needs to be a short phrase that give a positive mental image.

    whatever, off to class….

  4. ecostew says:

    One needs 3-4 words, which capture globally securing sustainable energy that mitigates AGW while ensuring food, water, health, etc. and protecting the environment.

  5. Joeb says:

    Our side needs to use Frank Luntz’s book a lot more. Good job again, Joe!

  6. elizabeth says:

    I agree with you about the efficacy of messaging. Words have power, as your responses above indicate as well. In a way, it’s a bit
    distressing just how much of an impact rhetoric and messaging alone can have. I’ve noticed a new trend with some major polluters, and even their law firms, promoting a new ‘clean energy’ group. Ah, you have to wonder if the name (shoe?) fits.

    My point is that it would be great if people didn’t get too carried away with the label/message/rhetoric (anyone can come up with a catchy label, or almost anybody — with the right help) but instead looked carefully behind it all. Nevertheless, you need to have a good phrase that captures the meaning, as you say.

  7. Pangolin says:

    It just fries some peoples short hairs that the hippies were right all along doesn’t it. The formerly crazy person who moved out of town, purchased an uneconomic small farm, grew organic fruits and vegetables and built an earth sheltered house powered by solar panels is now considered a prescient genius. They charge $200 per head for weekend “farm stays” to technology stressed yuppies.

    I think we should stick to “green jobs” because a) the hippies were right and b) the word “clean” now means removal of mountaintops, acid rain, soot and greenhouse gas pollution thanks to advertising by the coal people. “Clean energy jobs” will sound like a scam.

  8. Peter Black says:

    I agree. Once you have to explain something in politics you are already losing. I’m not sure “clean energy jobs” is the right catch phrase (due to what commenters have already posted), but let’s stay abreast of this. Joe, perhaps we can have a contest and put fertile minds to work on this…

  9. Frank C. says:

    This is extremely important. But it helps to have access to the research that can help inform the choices of words; you didn’t cite any here. You cited, “the messaging gurus say”….

    The best communications people have an ability to sometimes effectively use their gut in crafting descriptive phrases….but there is no substitute for polling and research. The narrative context of the choice of words matters also. I like examples as a learning tool. Basically, for good examples you can turn to the Obama campaign, as well as his current speeches. His communications team is the best I’ve ever seen.

  10. I agree with Joe’s view here. Branding of ideas is key. Rhetoric is a powerful tool for persuasion.

    “Green” is tired and and sounds like an old hippie fad. “Clean” beats “green.”

    “Sustainable” is a wonky word that will not sell to Joe the Plumber. He understands concepts like clean vs. dirty, however.

    “Energy” has too many syllables (like “sustainable”) to be used in a battlecry. “Power” is more to the point, scientifically accurate, and battle-tested. “Energy” includes heat, which is waste, while power is useful energy delivered for work and prosperity.

    “Jobs” stinks of the usual Washington pandering.

    So how about “Clean Power” — isn’t that what the solution to global climate change boils down to? Doesn’t that accurately describe wind and solar and geothermal?

  11. “clean, safe sources of energy that never run out,”

    This is genius! It’s extraordinarily clear; it evokes abundance and safety and it reeks of common sense.

    Who wouldn’t want clean, safe sources of energy that never run out? Fantastic!

  12. Steve S. says:

    I look forward to the upcoming posts. As Frank C. suggests, I hope Joe will cite some citations and name some names. Given the limited successes of the climate movement so far, I’m not sure there are many “people who definitely know how to do this sort of thing.”

    We should appreciate Joe’s caveat that none of this work is scientifically rigorous. It doesn’t appear to stop people from thinking that they can nail down the perfect phrase or slogan that will be persuasive to everyone. Here’s a recent interesting article that reveals how complicated this is:
    Lorraine Whitmarsh, “What’s in a name? Commonalities and differences in public understanding of “climate change”and “global warming,” Public Understanding of Science, Sep 2008.

    The climate movement does need to think about their rhetorical strategies, but the focus on “messaging” and quest to find the right phrase is small potatoes. The far more important challenges go well beyond messaging to crafting broader narratives and visions about sustainable societies and lifestyles that are appealing to a broad swath of people.

    In other words, we need visionaries of all types–writers, speakers, artists–more than we need green Frank Luntzes.

  13. Peter Wood says:

    I like the fact that “clean energy” jobs is much less vague than “green jobs”. But my understanding is that there will be a huge amount of jobs required for activities such as retrofitting old buildings so that they are more energy efficient. What phrase should be used to describe jobs such as that?

  14. jonesey says:

    The best thing about the phrase “clean energy” is that it immediately evokes an opposite phrase in people’s minds. Everyone knows that the opposite of “clean” is “dirty.” When people understand what clean energy is (carbon-neutral, safe, sustainable wind/solar/geothermal etc.), they will automatically know that everything else is “dirty energy.” We won’t have to explain what the opposite of clean energy is.

    The only trick is that the dirty energy folks have already latched onto “clean coal.” Luckily, economic forces should put that one to rest.

  15. “The climate movement does need to think about their rhetorical strategies, but the focus on “messaging” and quest to find the right phrase is small potatoes. The far more important challenges go well beyond messaging to crafting broader narratives and visions about sustainable societies and lifestyles that are appealing to a broad swath of people.”

    Steve S, if you are saying that for too long the quest to market (for lack of a better term) climate change policy has been one-dimensional and cynical and based on getting people to think about the problem in the same way scientists are thinking about the problem, then yes. I totally agree with you.

    But I would add that getting non-invested parties on board in as broad a way as possible is the biggest potato in the room, and that how one phrases an argument is the culmination of all the broad narrative work that you are talking about. The right phrase is big potatoes, if you arrive at the phrases relatively honestly, IMHO.

  16. Peter Black says:

    Unfortunately, I think it is far too late to change the moniker “green jobs” to anything else. The phrase is all over the media. To change now runs the risk of only further confusing people. Any attempt to deliberately change it will smack of a marketing campaign rather than a viral effort to right a wrong.