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What the UK’s election campaign teaches us about climate change communications

By Climate Outreach on June 13, 2017

On the face of it, the UK election last week provides few lessons for climate change communications – climate change was scarcely mentioned at all.

This follows a disturbingly familiar pattern in UK and US elections of a collective political and media silence around this issue. When it was mentioned – fleetingly in one question in the Cambridge TV debate – every party leader except UKIP’s Paul Nuttall competed to express their concern over “the most important issue we face“. This only made their silence all the more frustrating.

On the other hand, the election which saw an unprecedented shift from predictions to results in just six weeks does provide valuable lessons on effective public engagement that we can apply to climate change. Who knows, we might even persuade people to talk about it!

  1. Speak to values and identity (not figures and data)

Cognitive psychologists argue that people do not draw on facts, figures, or expert opinion when they make decisions. Rather, they find a position that matches the values of their peer group and seek evidence to justify their decision. Politicians also know this all too well, and following the disturbing precedent of the European referendum, the 2017 election was conducted largely in the form of cultural codes and dog whistles. As Climate Outreach has always argued, climate communications should be based in strong science. But to be persuasive, data must be relevant to people’s real concerns and messaging must reinforce, not undermine, their social identity.

  1. Don’t over-frame

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the need to select effective frames, and the conventional political wisdom is that these should then be repeated ad nauseam. The success of the Brexit campaign appeared to be built on the constant repetition of “take back control” – and so Theresa May’s advisors hit on a slogan containing two powerful frames, “strong and stable” and encouraged her to repeat it parrot fashion. In the final Prime Minister’s question time before the election, she used the phrase an extraordinary 17 times.

The strategy seriously backfired. The phrase was too obviously manipulative and smelt of focus group testing in an age when people are deeply cynical about politicians’ real intentions. May’s communications team failed to recognise the derision building around this phrase and repeated their dependence on sloganeering: the words certain, control, clarity, strength, protect and secure scream out from this strongly promoted video on Brexit, replacing all meaningful content.

Jeremy Corbyn’s team largely avoided repeating their opponents’ framing – even in mockery. They were well advised: the first rule of framing is never to repeat your opponents’ frames. The Conservatives on the other hand built their whole campaign around repeating Corbyn’s own statements. The Conservatives’ most watched video – which achieved an unprecedented 8 million views – consisted entirely of archive footage of Corbyn.

Similar issues can emerge around climate change communications when campaigning frames are adopted and overused without testing or any means to measure their effectiveness. This is particularly the case when communicators are speaking beyond their normal audience. For example, language assumed to appeal to a conservative mindset – including words like stability, opportunity, challenge, and security can sometimes backfire if their communicator is not trusted. The UK election showed that many of these key frames have now become stale, and that people are now alert to crude framing and require a more nuanced and conversational style. Climate change campaigners are also prone to distributing materials mocking climate deniers that inadvertently share and reinforce their frames and messages.

  1. Use authentic communicators

Trust has become the critical challenge for popular politics. People yearn for real voices. Despite their very varied agendas, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders and the Italian populist Beppe Grillo for example have all benefited from their perceived authenticity: you can see who they are, they speak their mind, and they defy the conventions of public relations.  Climate communications, though, is still locked into a ‘public service announcement’ format of reports by experts and documentaries with voice-overs by hidden presenters. The election experience reiterates the need for climate communications to find visible and authentic communicators, speaking in their own words of their own feelings. Even when people are scientific experts, there is a need for them to put aside their professional mantle and speak as individuals. Whilst the orthodoxy in science communication is that scientists are trusted messengers, in none of cases listed above have the speakers relied on expertise to win people over, but rather they have sought to identify with the electorate on the level of ‘common sense’ rather than a high level of education.

  1.   Use social norms

Theresa May appeared awkward when confronted with the public and retreated into stage managed photo opportunities. Jeremy Corbyn was far more comfortable in large groups, creating an impression of mass popular support. As social beings we are heavily influenced by group mentality and climate communicators need to take heed – rather than focus on individual actions, we need to demonstrate the social norm behind collective action.

But the real expression of the power of social norms in this election was through the unprecedented role of social media. Campaign magazine, the voice of the advertising industry, parodied the famous bragging Sun headline (following the 1992 Conservative victory) with an article titled “Why it’s Facebook Wot Won It.” Several online campaign videos achieved viewings greater than the circulation of any tabloid newspaper, shared by large numbers of people, giving them the added endorsement of a trusted source. Momentum was especially astute in its use of social media, prioritising content that was likely to be shared between friends, and estimates that its videos were shared between a quarter of all UK Facebook users: some 12.7 million people.

Climate change campaign organisations are already adept in their use of social media, and expert opinion argues that social media campaigning played a key role in pressuring the world’s governments to adopt the aspirational 1.5° target at the Paris climate negotiations. However, seen in the round, climate communications are still far too dependent on mainstream media and its elite voices. As Marc Morano, one of highest profile US campaigners against action on climate change told us: “while you guys spent your time trying to get reports into the New York Times, we were going round the local talk radio studios.” A report launched earlier this week showed that in South Asia, the majority of climate change communications is conducted in the English press: through a language that is not understood by the majority of the population!

  1.   Avoid negative messaging

This was not a positive campaign: these are uncertain times and neither side was keen to talk about blue skies ahead. However, the Conservative campaign was overwhelmingly negative: one estimate is that the Tories spent over £1 million on negative Facebook adverts targeting Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party made play on its avoidance of such personal attacks, and focused on principles of collective betterment (though it was perfectly happy to let Momentum be an attack dog, such as the video titled “Vote Theresa May because your children deserve worse” which was shared 5 million times).  Officially Labour sought the moral high ground. Its final campaign video, which was also very widely shared, abandoned all policy debate and showed images of real (and therefore authentic) people working and laughing with Corbyn backed by a feel-good Lily Allen tune. The Conservatives’ last video, by comparison, was another ill-advised mash-up of empty-sounding speeches by Theresa May, isolated behind a podium, intercut with far more sincere speeches by her opponent.

Again there are useful take-home lessons for climate change where, as in the current political environment, it is hard to find a positive message without warning of imminent disaster. One lesson is to avoid messaging of elite leadership and involve real people around a message of togetherness and shared values. Images are especially powerful in this regards, and our Climate Visuals project has repeatedly found a deep public cynicism about staged political photo-ops, and far greater interest in images of real people in real lives.

  1. Conversations are the only escape route from the echo chamber

The real opportunity, satisfying the desire for personal engagement and authenticity, is mobilising the power of real conversations. Taking cues from Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for US President, Momentum and the tactical voting group Campaign Together put their greatest efforts into mobilising thousands to knock on doors to have face to face conversations, a traditional tactic that has proven especially effective in the current distrustful era.

For climate communicators this could be the greatest learning: for an issue that the majority of people say they care about but very few people ever talk about, generating and sustaining face to face conversations is key. Climate engagement is still too dependent on top-down mass communications. Enabling a public conversation about climate change is what will make the issue become real and salient. It is only by breaking this collective silence that climate change will be mentioned in political debates and on campaign doorsteps. Our work with the Scottish Government is an example of how we can do this. Ultimately the best way of achieving a meaningful, impactful public conversation about climate change will always be with small-scale conversations.


One response to What the UK’s election campaign teaches us about climate change communications

  1. Hannington says: says:

    This is really brilliant.

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