"Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing."
In a front page article Saturday, “Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus,” the NYT opens with some mostly bad messaging advice from EcoAmerica:
The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”
The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.
Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”
Yes, EcoAmerica is pushing the inapt phrase, “our deteriorating atmosphere” over “global warming” (and even over “climate change”). And EcoAmerica recommends generally skipping or dumbing down most of the climate science message. And EcoAmerica is pushing stuff that is just plain counterproductive — I quote now from material they handed out at a 2-hours presentation I attended last week:
It is also important to accept people’s uncertainty about climate change but move past it with messages such as “whatever caused it, scientists know what will fix it.”
Not. Definitely not. I’m not sure it even makes sense for moderate politicians talking to groups of swing voters and trying to push a very, very short-term message about Waxman-Markey. But I’m quite certain it would be a suicidal message for climate science activists, for anyone seriously concerned about averting catastrophic global warming.
We know what is causing global warming and climate change. To suggest that we don’t is the equivalent of undermining the essential credibility of our message and of what we are trying to do — help the public and policymakers make decisions based on science to preserve the health and well-being of their children, grandchildren and the next 50 generations.
I have previously argued that phrases like “whatever caused it, scientist know what will fix it” are pure gobbledygook. If humans are not the cause of global warming then in fact scientists don’t know how to fix it.
[Note: Many readers asked for the source of my earlier recommendations -- Messaging 101: 'Green' jobs are out, 'clean energy' jobs are in. It is EcoAmerica. But whereas their suggestions on energy are mostly good, the same is not true about their climate advice.]
Let me run through some of the reasons why their climate messaging analysis is neither reliable nor strategic:
- Other recent messaging and polling analysis contradicts it. I heard an extended presentation just last month from a different group with their polling, and they did not recommend shying away from the science. They simply suggested not making it more than half your message. That’s certainly what I recommend. Indeed, other people in the audience with me at the ecoAmerica presentation made the same point that they had seen polling with different conclusions.
- Many of EcoAmerica’s findings are based on dial group responses. If somebody has a controlled study on whether a phrase that gets a positive response in a dial group is actually more persuasive or more memorable over the long-term than a phrase that gets a negative response, I’d love to see it. Obviously if you give people a dial to turn when you are telling them bad news — “you have diabetes” — they aren’t going to like to hear that message. But if you are a credible source, I suspect they are more likely to take action (especially as more symptoms reveal themselves) than if you just tell them — “eating tasty fruits and crunchy vegetables will help you live longer,” which would probably score much better on a dial group. You need both messages. Equally.
- In fact, I believe it was ecoAmerica’s president and founder, Robert Perkowitz, himself who conceded to me after the meeting that people will sometimes give a negative dial response to a message that in fact turns out to be an effective and persuasive messaging strategy. I believe that ecoAmerica work’s on clean energy messaging is pretty good, as I discussed in Part 1, because I think the dial groups can tell you which positive message works better than another positive message. But I think the dial groups are largely useless for helping you with what I’d call “reality-based messaging” on climate.
- The dial groups (but even the focus groups to a certain extent) are essentially passive ways to measure a response to a message to a very targeted audience. If you were giving a short speech in front of a large group of swing voters, then in that narrow case, their results might be useful to factor in. The vast majority of people I know don’t do that. We sometimes go out and give talks, but then we have a lot of time to explain ourselves. I also have serious doubts about using some of their suggestions for many other audiences, including the media.
- “Our deteriorating atmosphere” is a dead end phrase. It is too inapt and unwieldy to be picked up by the key message pushers. EcoAmerica wants to tie in the general frame of “pollution threatens your health and your children’s health.” That is always worth talking about. But it is very hard to see how a six-syllable word is going to be a core element of successful messaging, especially in a passive phrase like that. Now ecoAmerica was also pushing the word “damage,” and I do think an active phrase like “we are damaging the atmosphere,” isn’t bad. But the message isn’t strategic, which brings me to the key point:
- We are engaged in a multi-year messaging struggle here. The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme. One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned. To shy away from telling people the truth because they don’t want to hear it or they think it’s liberal claptrap is just incredibly un-strategic. EcoAmerica doesn’t want people to talk about “global warming.” And — even worse — they don’t want people to talk about extreme weather, which, as I have previously argued, is in fact the same thing that the climate deniers want — see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?” You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.
True, if you use phrases like “global warming” you will activate certain frames in the audience because the right wing and fossil fuel disinformation machine have done a tremendous job politicizing this issue, making it seem like just another liberal-conservative argument, rather than a science vs. denier argument. But does that mean we concede the powerful science frame just because the other side is more consistently effective and repetitious with their messaging?
The NYT reports:
Environmental issues consistently rate near the bottom of public worry, according to many public opinion polls. A Pew Research Center poll released in January found global warming last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and decreasing the influence of lobbyists. “We know why it’s lowest,” said Mr. Perkowitz, a marketer of outdoor clothing and home furnishings before he started ecoAmerica, whose activities are financed by corporations, foundations and individuals. “When someone thinks of global warming, they think of a politicized, polarized argument. When you say ‘global warming,’ a certain group of Americans think that’s a code word for progressive liberals, gay marriage and other such issues.”
I think Perkowitz has this backwards. Why is it “lowest”? Lots of reasons. Probably the two most important factors that drive what the public thinks is important are 1) How the major news stories are framed by the media and 2) What the White House focuses its messaging effort on. The media by and large downplay the issue — since they basically believe they “did global warming” back in 2006 with Gore’s movie and 2007 with the IPCC report. In particular, they follow ecoAmerica’s bad advice and largely fail to tell the public about the link between extreme weather and global warming (see, for instance, “CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story “” never mention climate change” and most stories here).
The media also downplay the issue because their primary source for information on climate science — climate scientists — also downplay the issue. As one top UK environmental editor wrote recently, “Far from over-playing their hand to swell their research coffers, scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction” (see UK Guardian: “To stop a climate catastrophe “¦ Scientists must stop sanitising their message”).
And let’s please remember a 2007 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded: “The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.” For 8 years! So I don’t think it’s a big surprise that global warming is not a bigger issue for the public, especially in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. And let’s remember that while progressive messaging has been scattershot at best, the right wing deniers have been both persistent and effective in their disinformation campaign. They have politicized this issue and pushed a partisan framing. But that is hardly a reason for climate science activists to give up explaining the issue to the public.
The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”
“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.
Well, I’m all for dropping the word “environment” (see Let’s Dump “Earth Day”). As I’ve said, messaging 101 is to be specific. Yes, “jargon” is bad. But details about science, economics, and technology are what people are hungry for. That is in fact what makes you seem more credible.
Yes, if you are giving a 10 minute speech in front of swing voters, skip the details. Duh. But most of the rest of the time this just isn’t good advice.
Yes, aspirational language is important to use. But a core tenet of rhetoric is to speak truthfully about what you know. Rhetoric is the 25 century-old art of persuasion, which has largely been forgotten by people today, although modern day messaging gurus are constantly reinventing the wheel, figuring out core tenets of persuasion that were documented and taught centuries ago by the Greeks and Romans and the English-language masters of rhetoric, the Elizabethans.
If you don’t know the climate science, then you probably shouldn’t talk about it. But frankly if you don’t know the science, you will be eaten alive by the informed conservative doubters in your audience, not to mention any professional deniers you might be debating or who might be on the same panel. A classic technique of rhetoric and debating is to go after your opponent on whatever they are weakest on. That’s why you need to know the science and how to explain it and defend it.
So if you are out there pushing gobbledygook, a savvy conservative a clever contrarian (or even a sharp reporter) will make you look like an uninformed fool. Remember the key line of the smarmy tobacco lobbyist in the must-see movie, Thank you for Smoking:
I don’t have to be right. I just have to prove you might be wrong.
So the deniers have the easier end of it on global warming messaging — they can throw out 100 lies and succeed if even one sticks. That’s no reason to walk away from the science. Quite the reverse.
Indeed, I think at some level, some of ecoAmerica’s recommendations are elitist, suggesting that we can’t explain the facts to swing voters — that they can’t handle the truth — but instead we need to use obscuring or vague phrases to persuade them. I couldn’t disagree more. And I’m not alone.
The fact that our best communicator — President Obama “The green FDR of clean, safe sources of energy that never run out” — takes every opportunity he has to speak about capping carbon dioxide and avoiding catastrophic global warming impacts is probably the clearest evidence that the rest of us climate messaging amateurs should also keep doing so.
I mostly agree with this sentiment from the end of the NYT article:
Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental communications, said ecoAmerica’s campaign was a mirror image of what industry and political conservatives were doing. “The form is the same; the message is just flipped,” he said. “You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell that. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”
He said the approach was cynical and, worse, ineffective. “The right uses it, the left uses it, but it doesn’t engage people in a face-to-face manner,” he said, “and that’s the only way to achieve real, lasting social change.”
I do fully agree that engaging people in a face-to-face manner with the truth is the only way to achieve real, lasting social change.
But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the best techniques of rhetoric (even if they have been partly rediscovered and abused by the advertising industry) in your messaging. You’ll never win a debate against a skilled debater without rhetoric. But I also think you’ll never win on this issue — and by win I mean avoid Hell and High Water [Note to self: That phrase is as unlikely to replace global warming as "deteriorating atmosphere" even if it is both -- get over it!] — by downplaying the scientific reality.
What you need to know is not how to avoid talking about climate science to the public. What you need to know is how to talk about climate science to the public — and that is subject of the next part in this series.