Personally Speaking: Why Effective Climate Messaging Starts With People

blog-start with people-6.2.16At a social media conference not long ago, I sat in on a panel discussion on best practices. Be timely and responsive, the panelists advised – but above all, be human. Even when acting as the Twitter or Facebook voice of a brand or corporation, it’s important to remember that social media engagement is still a dialogue between people.
 
The same holds true for communicating about climate. Effective climate messages are about people, not data. It’s essential to understand what motivates your audience to behave in certain ways, and what might inspire them to change that behavior. People aren’t always logical – even if they are deeply concerned about a problem, they may not take action. Maybe they feel powerless, or guilty, or just don’t know where to begin.
 
This is why social science research has become an increasingly valuable tool for climate communicators. When we understand the psychology behind human tendencies and desires, we can tap in more effectively to people’s needs and priorities.
 
The power of social norms
People are inherently social beings – there’s a natural tendency for us to behave in ways that are acceptable to our tribe, and a reluctance to diverge from the norm. According to a new study by researchers at the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI), one of the prime indicators of whether a person takes public action on climate change is whether their friends and family are also taking part. If no one they actually knew was taking action, the participants in the study were much less inclined to do so themselves.
 
Knowing this tendency, climate communicators can help show how climate-friendly behaviors are becoming the social norm. For example, energy companies have been successful in inspiring their customers to save energy by showing them how their energy use compares with their neighbors.
 
Social pressure can also cause people who are concerned about climate change to stay silent. Our recent communications research found that 71 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, but 68 percent feel it’s risky to admit this view if it differs from those of their friends and family. Our latest communication guide, Let’s Talk Climate, offers messages that anyone can use to start constructive conversations and build support for solutions.
 
The need to feel effective
The SERI study also found that people are less willing to take action on climate if they are unsure that their actions will make a difference. One way to counter this is to offer tangible examples of successful efforts – all the better if those positive examples are related to local actions and consequences.
 
In our research, messages that showed how climate solutions are available here and now resonated strongly. People were empowered by knowing that the transition to clean energy isn’t just possible – it’s happening all around them. The next step is to demand ambitious government policies that can bring about the wide-scale solutions we need.
 
The desire to be listened to
People are also more willing to support climate initiatives and programs if they have a say in crafting them. As cities and communities around the world take steps to protect against and prepare for climate impacts, they are increasingly seeking the input of local residents in their plans. By asking for suggestions and involving locals in the design process, city officials are seeing less public resistance, more cooperation, and a wider range of creative solutions.
 
Despite our diversity, Americans have more in common than we think. Conservative or liberal, baby boomer or millennial, secular or religious, we’re all human. We want to feel connected. We want the best for our families. We want to make a difference and help build a better world for future generations. The most successful climate messages tap into those common needs and priorities, and focus on what we can do if we work together.

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