07 January 2011

Getting Serious About Climate PR

It's not often I get to say I'm on the same page as the Union of Concerned Scientists. But back in November I wrote a post about some scientists (specifically the American Geophysical Union) pulling together a "rapid response" team to work with the media on climate change issues. I suggested that was good but not enough, and gave some ideas on action items:
One of the things they could do is hold a press conference in DC before the new Congress is seated and let the political reporters know some basic facts. Not necessarily the science of climate change, because most political reporters don't care about the science of climate change. The basic facts I'm talking about can be summed up thusly: if a politician tells you the jury is still out on man-made climate change, he's lying. Get out there first and define the lie. Yes, it's been said before. But not really in this context - right as a session of Congress is beginning. Make sure everyone knows they're lying - make sure it's the default position. Then let the media investigate the motivation behind the lie.
Then follow up the press conference with editorial board meetings with the newspapers in key Congressional districts (i.e., the members of Congress who chair relevant committees), again with the simple, clear message: if a politician tells you the jury is still out on man-made climate change, he's lying.
And so on.  So it's quite heartening to read this in Politico:
Expecting a surge next year in Republican-led House hearings on global warming science, the Union of Concerned Scientists sent experts out earlier this month to Washington and New York for meetings with reporters from 60 Minutes, Time, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, MSNBC and other news organizations. Frumhoff said the journalists “were keenly interested in understanding how casting doubt about mainstream scientific findings that upset powerful financial interests, from the health risks of tobacco to the reality and risks of global warming, is a tactic that has been used time and again to delay or avoid regulation.”
UCS has also been leading behind-the-scenes efforts to get its scientists on television, radio and in print stories, as well as in front of Rotary clubs and editorial boards.
This suggests to me that scientists are thinking more strategically about communication and how it relates to policy, and this is a very good thing.

Of course, there is considerably more to this than just meeting in advance.  What does their messaging look like?  Has it been tested with focus groups or surveys?   Are they addressing the economic issues that critics leverage so effectively?  Are their spokespersons well-trained and all on the same page?  And do they have the commitment and resources to sustain a coordinated and aggressive campaign?

Here's the thing:  groups like UCS and AGU clearly have the science on their side, and they actually want more, not less, transparency in this discussion.  But critics have more money and more at stake in the short term, and they have much more experience developing and implementing effective, strategic communications campaigns.

In a future post I'll review some of the strategic pressure points advocates can use in their messaging to move from defense to offense, and win more of these PR skirmishes.

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