White House messaging strategy earns accolades from PR pros

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 16, 2014

Long before it unveiled a major scientific report last week demonstrating how climate change is already affecting communities around the country, the White House had already settled on a strategy of making warming a hometown issue for as many Americans as possible.

Cabinet members racked up frequent flyer miles last summer discussing the effects of climate change on crops in Des Moines, Iowa, or the job-creation potential of advanced energy technologies in Morgantown, W.Va., for example (E&E Daily, July 29, 2013).President Obama set up a task force of local and state officials to help guide adaptation efforts and used drought-stricken California as his backdrop to challenge Congress to allocate $1 billion in funding for climate resiliency. In March, his White House launched a data initiative that would give private citizens a glimpse of whether their neighborhoods are likely to be inundated by rising seas (Greenwire, March 19).

Those who have made a career out of shaping and studying public opinion say this is a smart strategy.

“Does it work? Sure,” was the verdict from Mike Lawrence of the Boston-based public relations and marketing firm Cone Communications.

The problem with messaging on climate change has always been that it is a global challenge viewed by the public as removed from them in time and place, he said in an interview with Greenwire.

But the National Climate Assessment (NCA), released one week ago, armed the administration with plenty of specific information about the current regional impacts of warming, and the White House was right to send officials to plug those issues outside the Beltway, he said.

Doing so earned the administration valuable extra days of media coverage, he said.

“The first thing you do when you’re in the public relations business is to try to find a way to keep the story sustainable,” he said. “This is a way to do that: to translate the science into something people are affected by day to day, and to make them care enough to pay attention.”

Case in point: “The Southeast and Caribbean region is exceptionally vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat events, hurricanes, and decreased water availability,” the report warns. So Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talked drought and wildfire in California last week, while U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy heads to Puerto Rico and Florida this week to discuss the report and to raise awareness about respiratory health.

Localizing the message also helps the administration separate it from the highly partisan, politicized Washington, D.C.-based battle over federal regulation and legislation and approach the American public on more neutral terms, he said.

Larry Parnell, director of the strategic public relations program at the George Washington University, gave the White House kudos for inviting the nation’s television weather forecasters to the White House for Rose Garden interviews with Obama.

The move extended coverage as weather reporters strove to make the most of their rare footage with the president and helped elevate the issue among an influential group of television personalities. More people tune in to watch the weather forecast than any other news segment, he noted.

“In a way what this does is creates what we in the PR world call a third-party endorsement of your cause,” he said. “It was a very, very clever and effective communications strategy.”

Lawrence agreed that the weathercaster interviews worked, in part because the White House tapped into the credibility of a group of communicators who are viewed to be above the political fray on climate change in a way that his agency’s officials are not.

Television meteorologists are “almost a scientist but more than your neighbor” — a winning combination of expertise and relatability designed to assure viewers that they are being presented with facts rather than political propaganda. The “neighbor” part of the equation is key, Lawrence said. Science on its own is not likely to convert people to the idea that climate change is real and affects them.

“It’s more persuasive to get climate change through the emotions and passions and anxiety of people who appear to have been touched by what appears to be climate change than to get it from anywhere else,” he said.

This is what the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously” seeks to do, and Lawrence said it, too, has been effective.

In a recent interview, the show’s executive producer, Daniel Abbasi, said there is nothing wrong with blending facts with feeling to elevate the debate on climate change.

“We need a more visceral understanding of the stakes,” he said. “Emotion helps guide and is very complementary to rationality. We need our whole brains to properly size up risks.”

The series, which was launched in April, shows events that likely have a link to climate change — droughts, storms and other catastrophes — through the eyes of those affected by them.

Lawrence said the administration should do more to tell victims’ stories about climate-related occurrences.

“People need to be convinced by the experiences of people like them: regular people, everyday citizens, the kinds of people they could see themselves living near,” he said.

Criticisms of the PR approach

But Stanford University social psychologist Jon Krosnick said that the White House and most supporters of climate action have it wrong; Americans do not need climate change to be made personal to them in order to care about it. They base their political beliefs on their values and concern for collective welfare, he said.

“Americans are just bigger than that,” he said. “They think more admirably about issues.”

If they overstate the link between specific occurrences and climate change, advocates and the White House may run the risk of undermining their own credibility and hurting their cause, he said.

“It really surprises me this is the strategy that’s being chosen to try to follow through on developing public concern,” he said.

Krosnick argued that there is already more than enough public support for the legislation and regulations climate advocates seek, which are presumably the aim of their public relations efforts.

Krosnick’s research shows that the climate change “issue public” — defined as the portion of the American public that cares passionately about the issue and bases voting and advocacy decisions on it — is at an all-time high. He estimates that 18 percent of the population fell into that category in 2013 — higher than any year except 2007.

These findings appear against a backdrop of less overall certainty about the science of manmade climate change. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that fewer Americans in 2013 saw “solid evidence” that the planet is warming (67 percent) compared with 2007 (77 percent).

But Krosnick said the percentage of the population that is “married” to climate change is higher than for many other issues like gun control and abortion, and should give politicians comfort that they will be rewarded rather than punished for “green” votes. The problem is the false perception among politicians and others that Americans don’t support climate action, he said, which contributes to deadlock on the issue.

Krosnick pointed to research he co-authored in the 1990s to show that personal interest plays a limited role in forming political opinions. Lawrence, whose firm represents business and large nonprofit clients, provided his own survey data to show that the public prefers to see corporate stewardship dollars support local projects instead of national or international ones. This argues that local impacts matter more to people, he said.

How to move the ball forward?

While they praised the White House’s communications strategy, Parnell and Lawrence said the administration has failed to tell its would-be converts what they could do to move the ball forward on climate change.

This is partly a function of the logjam in Congress, which has taken legislation to curb emissions off the table indefinitely, giving Krosnick’s “issue public” less to campaign for.

Said Lawrence: “The home plate is blocked, and they’re looking for a way to score a run.”

Environmentalists have said they hope the public will show strong support for EPA’s forthcoming Clean Air Act greenhouse gas regulations, assuring members of Congress from swing states and districts that they can resist calls to limit the agency’s regulatory authority.

But Parnell said that probably wouldn’t be enough to satisfy citizens who care about the issue. “It can’t just be air cover for Democrats,” he said. “Giving people something to do to feel ‘I’m part of this’ is a necessary step.”

The White House’s effort to promote and defend its 2010 health care overhaul showed the dangers of not engaging the public on an issue from the beginning, he said.

But Obama and his team have few options, unless they want to tell Americans to “change their light bulbs,” like former Vice President Al Gore, or “wear a sweater,” like former President Carter.

Ivan Frishberg of Organizing for Action, an advocacy group that grew out of Obama’s campaign operation, said his group’s primary goal is to change public attitudes about climate change rather than to advocate for one policy or another.

Obama is moving ahead with his climate strategy and can be trusted to finish it, Frishberg said, but his second term ends in 2017.

“Ultimately, where we need to be at the end of this administration is a much more robust conversation about climate, because the next president — whoever they are — they’re going to have to do the next things,” he said.

With the White House due to release post-2020 emissions reduction commitments early next year ahead of the 2015 U.N. talks in Paris, the administration will need to know that there is public support for strong goals, he said.