Archive for the 'Communications' Category


be careful what you wish for

A new poll out today on health care reform illustrates the blow-back from years of anti-government framing, by both conservatives and progressives.

In measuring public opinion about the bill to overhaul health care, Associated Press-GfK found that public attitudes turned sharply negative AFTER the bill was signed into law.

Clues to explain this unusual movement are to be found in the details buried deeper in the poll results.

Despite the clear positive impact the legislation will have on consumers’ pocketbooks, AP/GfK reports that “the public doesn’t seem to be buying it….Fifty-seven percent said they expect to pay more for their own health care, contrasted with 7 percent who expect to pay less. And 47 percent said they expect their own medical care to get worse, compared with 14 percent looking forward to an improvement.”

These results reflect the fact that most folks now expect to be worse off when government programs expand, when government takes action.  And this mind-set is so strong that people will remake facts to fit their opinion, as illustrated with health care reform.

While directly criticizing the role of government is a frequent theme of conservative talking heads, progressive advocates often repeat and reinforce that theme with poorly constructed criticism of government decisions.  Rather than criticize particular decision-makers or the special interests who influence them, progressives often just broadly name and blame the “federal government”, feeding into the notion that government is a bad thing, an independent actor, rather than the expression of public will and community responsibility.

And the chickens have come home to roost.


reframing the debate on climate science

The international consensus on global warming has seemingly experienced a spectacular slow-motion train wreck over the last few months, with “climategate” reports piling up in public debate like derailing rail cars filmed in freeze frame.  The fascination for on-lookers, however, is that the science itself is largely blameless.   Instead, the pile-up stands as a case study in how not to wage a political battle.  And make no mistake; the attacks on climate science are pure politics.  We have seen attacks on science before, just pick your favorite example: smoking, toxic pollution, seat belts, etc.  However, until there is a fundamental reframing of the climate science debate, one that illuminates the politics, this round of attacks will continue to enjoy success.

Before focusing on how to reframe the debate on climate science, it’s fair to ask whether it’s worth the effort. In the wake of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC report on climate change three years ago, with climate science seemingly well established, advocates for climate protection focused their attention and rhetoric on the power of clean technology to fuel economic growth and create green jobs.   This strategy was driven in part by the sober realization that abstract science is very limited when it comes to reaching and mobilizing mainstream audiences in the U.S.  Fancy power point charts describing a threat arriving 100 years in the future just won’t cut it when your job is on the line right now and rent is due next week.

With the IPCC report well publicized, the champions of climate science moved onto other fronts, leaving climate scientists to hold down the fort. However, this approach ignored a basic principal of conflict – victories must be defended.  Not surprisingly, the opponents of climate protection took advantage and mobilized to attack the science.  They understood full well that, while the science is insufficient by itself to mobilize public will, it does provide the foundation for building the moral outrage than can and does move Americans.  Poll after poll has found that highlighting the threat global warming poses to our children’s future is one of the few compelling arguments that gain traction with mainstream audiences.  But that threat is meaningless if the science is not believed.

At the same time, the scale and pace of change required to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be summoned simply by highlighting the benefits of investing in clean energy.  The benefits from changing over to a low carbon society are too diffuse, and the few big winners are yet to be known.  Meanwhile the losers know exactly who they are and understand that they stand to lose, and they have the deep pockets to fight long and hard.  Choosing between highlighting the benefits of change or focusing on the danger of inaction is a bad strategy.  Both benefits and risks must be illuminated.

Science is the question (and it shouldn’t be)

Currently media coverage of climate science is framed such that it defines the fundamental question as an issue of science, not politics. In this setting, the more the science is debated, the more the science is defined as debatable.  There is simply no way to “prove” the science in a sound bite or a new story.  Debating the science in the news is a no-win proposition that perpetuates public doubt.

There are four dimensions to the frame of every issue.  And there is an opportunity to recast every dimension of climate science debate.

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers.  And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science.  While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate.  Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science.  If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don’t make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science.  They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Message

When debate becomes poisoned and opponents are engaged in distortion and deceit, it becomes critically necessary to call out the politics and highlight the consequences of arguing in bad faith.

Climate advocates should document and highlight the funding and industry ties for the current wave of climate deniers.  While the new generation of critics is often driven by partisan politics as much as by direct industry interests, their partisanship is fair game for reprove, particularly when it comes at the expense of our nation.

Advocates for climate protection need to go on the offensive.  They need to go beyond saying what the attacks don’t do (“they don’t undermine the science”) and spell out what the attacks do achieve: costly and dangerous delay.

Calling out the politics is a way to bridge the debate, to move away from debating climate science to highlighting the impacts of climate change as well as the opportunity to invest in a clean energy economy, an opportunity jeopardized by the delaying and stonewalling tactics of climate deniers.

The Audience

The audience forms the third dimension of a news frame.  Tell the same story to a different audience and you can end up with a different story.  In the context of the climate science debate, addressing the ultra-conservative audiences served up by Fox News is a low priority.   The focus should be on independent audiences in key states. At the same time, it is important not to ignore liberal bloggers simply because reaching out to them is seen as preaching to the choir.  That choir makes up the much talked about echo chamber, and if you don’t give the choir a songbook, it doesn’t know what to sing.

The Setting

It’s critically important to do more than defend the IPCC.  Debating 1,000 page science reports is not a compelling setting, and the rehabilitation of the IPCC brand will not happen overnight, despite the fact that the damage was done by erroneous attacks.

A better setting for talking about climate science is a real time impact of climate change, be it a record heat wave or record heavy rains followed by heavy flooding.   There is no denying what your eyes can see.  Last fall’s record setting flood in Atlanta was a textbook example of the kind of impact that should be highlighted. Only months earlier, NOOA had released a consensus science report documenting the trend of increased heavy precipitation during the fall months in the southeastern United States.  NOAA identified climate change as driving the trend and predicted more of the same for the future.

Some have argued that focusing on current weather can be tricky.  However, advocates were forced to do just that when opponents focused on the recent snowstorms as “proof” that global warming was oversold. Advocates were successful in pushing back on climate change deniers in that instance, and the same effort should be applied to upcoming heat waves, droughts and flooding, events that fit the pattern of increasing extreme events that scientists have clearly documented and predicted will only increase as the impacts of climate change intensify,

Another useful setting can be the courtroom where the plaintiffs are real-life people who’ve suffered real losses from climate change.  In this setting the question is not whether or not the science is solid, but whether the fossils fuel industry should be held legally liable for the billions of tons of carbon pollution it has dumped into the atmosphere.

Other useful story lines could highlight different governments, companies, and stakeholders such as water managers who are already making decisions and taking action based on what the science is dictating, reinforcing the notion that the science is settled–and urgent– with dramatic consequences for their business and communities.

Fending off the attack on climate science does require a concerted rapid-response defense simply to set the record straight.  But winning the debate requires going beyond defending the science. It requires asking different questions, such as who wins and who loses.


Calling Out Climate Lies

The  hacked climate science email “scandal” once again raises the question of how to respond to climate “skeptics.”

The first chore is to sort out what kind of skeptic you are dealing with. And for the most part, they fall into two varieties: uninformed folks acting in good faith (sometimes to meet self-serving ends) and informed experts acting in bad faith (often to serve industry).

It’s one thing to debate science in good faith.  But when you find yourself debating someone arguing in bad faith, there’s nothing for it but to call out the dishonesty.

While it’s good and necessary to set the science record straight, continuing to answer false arguments made in bad faith only pours fuel on the fire.   In this setting, the very act of debating the science promotes the notion there is something to debate.  Climate deniers thrive on false debate.  Rising to rebut their arguments is simply taking the bait.

Yet remaining silent often won’t work – thus the need to call out the disingenuous nature of the “debate.”

This post by a climate scientist in response to NYT reporter Revkin about the hacked email story is a good example of how to douse fire with water.

“The tactics the inactivists have been using in the run-up to Copenhagen have been all outside the sphere of legitimate scientific discourse. Bogus petitions, sham attempts to gut the  A.P.S. climate statement, and now cowardly illegal outings of private emails from an individual scientist.”


The End Game Begins (Finally)

Newspapers are folding in droves. And that raises a real challenge for those of us who leverage the news media to reach the American public.

If there are no newspapers to pitch to, how are we are going to publicize our stories?

Today the Rocky Mountain News announced that Friday will be its last day on the news racks. And earlier this year the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said it was calling it quits.

But the big shocker came earlier this week when the Chron announced it might shutter its doors. Both the Rocky and the PI print in two-paper towns, and the collapse of two-paper towns has been going on for a while now. But San Francisco is a one-paper town, and if the Chron folds the city would be without a legitimate daily newspaper.

While the digital world has enormous reach, to date the easiest way to get content into the digital world has often been the old-fashioned way: pitch a story to a newspaper or wire service, and after it runs watch the blogs pick it up and run with it. There are, of course, many ways to help push that story around the blogosphere, but one of the best ways to get through the digital door in the first place has been through the traditional media.

The open secret of the digital media world is that it’s been subsidized by the traditional media which supplies the oxygen that the blogosphere breathes. If you want to put a number on that subsidy you might total the losses racked up by the mainstream media since the advent of the digital media world – and that runs into the billions of dollars.

Without the traditional news media, where will news stories come from? Someone has to write, edit and stand by the stories, and to date the only way to get anyone to do all that has been to pay them.

So now the hunt is on, in earnest, for a new “business model.”

There’s all kind of ideas out there, from crowd sourced news outlets to micro-payments.

I’m not feelin’ micropayments, it seems like a last gasp effort to shoehorn the old model into the new reality. But crowd-sourcing seems to be following the strategy that best fits in with the way the new digital world works: DIY.

However, for my money, i think the future will be the resurrection of ideological news outlets, news outlets sponsored by someone with an agenda, e.g. foundations or advocacy coalitions. As Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

[Not to say that the old-guard corporate news media doesn’t have an agenda – in fact one of the great snow jobs in history is the notion of “objective” journalism, an idea lovingly fostered by the corporate media to help brand it’s product.]

Interestingly, way way back in the day newspapers in the U.S. proudly wore their politics on their sleeve, and in Europe many outlets still differentiate themselves not by geography (i.e. “media market”) but by ideology.

Here in the states, there is already there is an emerging crowd of mission-driven news outlets backed by dollars with an agenda. Check out Environmental News Service, Public News Service, Environmental Health News, The Real News Network, among others.

Social media, too, will be a cornerstone of communication campaigns of the future. The beautiful thing about Facebook is that it sorts and groups audiences for you. All you have to do is join-in and reach out.

Increasingly in the future, the way to get you news out into the world will be to do it yourself.

July 2018
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