Three reasons social change organisations fail to set the agenda


I’ve noticed a few occasions recently, among those of us trying to make the world a better place, a failure to seize control of the agenda on key issues.

We all know that agenda-setting is crucial. If you speak first, you set the tone of the debate, and decide on the all-important language to be used. Best of all, your opponent needs to answer to your criticism instead of the other way around.

Reason one: It feels a bit naughty

Good people in the social change movement often feel constrained to do the right thing. Just going straight to the media with a crucial bit of information might feel like breaking the rules or acting in an unethical way.

Trust me, it’s not. If you’re a small organisation whose only power comes from holding the moral high ground, you have to use anything you can get to ensure you get off on the front foot in any  public debate over your issues.

Reason two:  We don’t have the resources

This one comes up a lot. Small organisations in particular get very overstretched, with often just a few people fighting the good fight on a variety of fronts. There are ways to address this though. Regularly prepare messaging on all big issues you think might be looming. Narrow your scope to the issues where you can really contribute something unique. Implement a ‘rapid response template’ which sets out very clearly who has sign-off, who will do what, and in what order, in the case of a fast moving hot issue.

Reason three:  The right wing press won’t listen to us

Often very true, but not necessarily a killer. You can explore social media instead – sometimes a story can be constructed around the social media campaign instead. Does your issue have a local angle? Customise it for small local publications around the country and hit the phones – often smaller publications will take something up if you can demonstrate relevance to the area they serve.

Remember: setting the agenda is the first step on the way to changing the world.

A threatened species: Australia’s oil and gas industry

Thought you’d heard of all the threatened species of note? You’re missing one: Australia’s oil and gas industry.

A new, shameless attempt to negate the bad press the industry gets from oil spills, climate change, pollution, and being owned by ruthless profiteers, the Our Natural Advantage website adopts the language and tools of green protest in a cynical attempt to dilute messages and negate legitimate protest.

What they’ve copied

Language: The oil and gas industry is ‘threatened’, it needs to be ‘defended’ and ‘protected’. The ‘future’ is mentioned a lot. Gas is ‘natural’.

Narrative: There is a baddy in this story, and it’s the Greens. They ‘say no’ to jobs. They ‘risk the future’.

Petition: There’s a petition you can sign and email to your MP.

Information tools: There’s a ticker with inflated figures of how much money and jobs the industry has generously pumped into Australia’s economy along with all that climate-changing air pollution

What it means

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They’ve copied our language and our methods because they are working.

Lobbying 101 tells us that the best way to strengthen your case is to team up with an unlikely partner and sing from the same hymn sheet. Lock the Gate, the greens and farmers who object to coal seam gas exploration on prime Australian farmland, does just this, so we can guess from the website that Lock the Gate has the oil and gas people trembling like a fracked paddock.

It also means all the usual things: they have pots of money, they can afford huge PR bills and they intend to fight to the bitter end to protect the huge profits they siphon from the shared wealth beneath our feet.

It also makes them a fair target for satire and protest, and gives a place for that protest to live. Signing up a few thousand non existent people might be fun, and might keep them busy and paying those PR bills.

Most of all though, it means that we have to think of new ways to get our messages out and ensure that people in power hear and act on them


Communicating climate complexity: 3 reasons for hope


One of the great challenges when messaging climate change is its sheer complexity.

Research is awash with examples of complexity turning people off. In an age of information overload, the last thing many people want is yet more facts and figures. Some marketers even take advantage of this aversion to complexity: it’s called ‘confusion marketing’. That’s essentially what the Gruen Transfer is: using interior decoration to bamboozle consumers into buying more.

Our knowledge of climate change is based on complex syntheses of complex science. Like the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, this can sometimes contradict lived experience (‘But this winter there’s a lot of snow!’)

It has complex causes, like politics, power, money, and technology.

It has complex effects on societies and natural systems.  Some of these, like ecosystems and climate systems, are so complex themselves that we can’t understand or accurately predict the effects of climate change on them.

The only simple message seems to be how hard this all is.

But I thought really hard, using my highly evolved human brain, and I found three fairly simple reasons for hope amidst the complexity:

  1. Humans can take simple lessons from complexity - eventually. Over the millenia we’ve been dealing with challenges in our complex environment, from ravenous beasts to floods and famines. Over time, we tend to distill our group knowledge into large lexicons of simple take-home messages. Never smile at a crocodile. A stitch in time saves nine. And so on.
  2. Humans have faced this kind of issue before. Glaciation and the retreat of glaciers already happened to us. They must have caused huge changes in human food sources and patterns of migration, but obviously we managed to adapt.
  3. Humans can think about complicated systems. The complex nuances of human relationships are a good example. Nothing was ever so complicated as a bunch of talking apes trying to work out who has to go round the corner to buy milk for the office, or who really brought those presents under the Christmas tree  – but we arrive at an answer in the end.

The good, the bad and the messaging

see no evil.jpg

I had a great time this weekend at the Psychology for a Safe Climate conference. There were some excellent speakers from across the social sciences, including a thought provoking paper from Byron Smith on messaging and framing around climate issues.

A huge challenge in climate change communications is morality. We’ve long known that environmental messaging cuts through very effectively when there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

People just like that kind of narrative: Evil Coca-Cola is blocking the container deposit scheme! Greedy miners want to dig up the pristine Kimberley!

These are messages that externalise environmental harm, and they’re easier to take on board than ‘I need to stop buying bottled water’ or ‘I use computers and smartphones made of the metal dug up in places like the Kimberley every single day’.

But who’s the baddy when it comes to climate change? Grasping fossil fuel companies? Lazy, corrupt governments? You and me, as we leave the lights blazing, eat our imported food, drive to work and plan our next exotic overseas getaway?

Another speaker, Andrea Bunting, suggested exploring the dimensions of moral framing: some messaging internalises it (guilt) while other messaging externalises it (anger). People were more easy to spur to action when they could feel moral outrage at an external party. She suggested fossil fuel divestment campaigns like Go Fossil Free were a good model, because they point the finger at some obvious ‘bad guys’, giving us, the ‘good guys’, clear action to take.

I must say that I came away with a renewed consciousness that globally, we’re all part of the climate change problem and, to reference a cliché, we all need to work together to solve it. How to work that into messaging is another question entirely!

How to boycott the boycott ban


So, Tony Abbott’s new government is going to move swiftly to ban secondary boycotts of products and services.

Boycotts are a way for green groups, and those concerned with human rights and other issues, to pressure companies into doing the right thing. Targeting a company’s customers means hitting them where it hurts – on the bottom line.

Where would we be without secondary boycotts? We’d still be eating tuna laced with dolphin, for a start.

Even rampant neoliberals like the IPA think a secondary boycott ban is a bad idea – it goes against free market ideology to deny consumers basic information about the products they purchase.

But in the event that the Competition and Consumer Act is changed to remove the current environmental and social protections for boycotts, what can environmental communicators do about it? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Get personal. Try a Twitterstorm or a Facebook mob asking awkward questions of a company director or CEO. If you’re savvy about getting some media coverage, or if the target makes a gaff in responding, you might get enough media and generate enough negative PR to have a similar effect to a boycott.
  2. Get into stores. Ask your activists to go in, load up trolleysful of the product in question, walk up to the till….then loudly exclaim ‘Oh my god, this tuna has DOLPHINS in it!’ and leave them there. It’s not illegal, stores will hate the effort and expense of re-shelving the product, and will put their own pressure on the manufactures to lift their game.
  3. Sell the boycott. Charge supporters 5c for a download or information sheet about the product in question. If you’re selling something, the new laws could protect you from the company’s attempts to shut you down. The boycott has become your ‘product’!
  4. Talk about what you would boycott, if you could. Carefully worded media quotes along the lines of ‘If product boycotts were legal, we’d suggest consumers boycott this product’ or ‘If you’re worried about issue x, you shouldn’t buy this product’ might be just safe enough to satisfy the lawyers.
  5. Use satire. Satire offers a defence from defamation laws which might cover you. Print yourself some funny stickers, sneak into vendors and sticker the products in question (think tuna cans with ‘now with delicious added dolphin!’) The gimmick, used well, can generate media which applies pressure to the company. A funny, shareable Youtube video of the process wouldn’t go astray either.

Why your email newsletter is like climate change


Newsflash: Smartphones are everywhere. Tablets are very common too.

Yeah yeah, you know this.

But, as environmental communicators know from trying to get people to care about little issues like, I dunno, the future of life on Earth,  it’s amazing the disconnect between knowing there’s a problem and actually doing what you need to do to fix it.

On mobile optimisation - just like climate change - the science is in.

Online gifts, as I’m sure you know, are the fastest growing segment of charitable giving. In a world where face-to-face fundraising is rapidly reaching saturation point, or at least the point of zero net growth due to high attrition rates, that growth is a valuable commodity.

Email newsletters are a HUGE source of potential referrers to your non profit website and thus to your donations page.

Around 44% of emails are now opened on mobile devices. But only around 12% of bulk emails are actually optimised for viewing via mobile devices. And emails that aren’t optimised get deleted or left unread.

So if you’re in the business of trying to get people to take action for our planet, take action for your online newsletter. Make it tablet and mobile responsive, and watch the donations and support increase.

Ugly fish makes a beautiful engagement strategy


Simon Watt is a biologist and science educator who worried that environmental campaigns focus disproportionately on mammals.

This is a real issue – the extinction of a bug might not seem too fascinating, but what if it’s the bug that keeps a major agricultural pest at bay, or pollinates a flagship tree species?

As Simon puts it, ‘The vast majority of life out there is dull and ugly.’ He put together the  Ugly Animal Preservation Society, and in terms of environmental communication, he has done everything right.

This excellent campaign, (actually a savvy front for the National Science and Engineering Competition) had all the ingredients it needed to reach new audiences and get people fired up for nature conservation. The winning formula included:

  • A good story. Ugly animals are the underdogs (ha!) and they need our support.
  • Strong visuals. Who wouldn’t want to look at ten pictures of the world’s ugliest animals?
  •  A list. New and old media alike adore a list. Lists make news where there was no news before, and the ‘top ten’ ugly animals did this perfectly.
  • A social media poll. Twitter users could vote for their top ugly animal. This gave them a stake in the result and meant they were likely to follow the Society’s story as it developed.
  • Interaction between social media and traditional media. The poll and resulting winner became a story which was enthusiastically picked up by digital and print media.
  • Celebrity tie ins. A mock ‘election campaign’ was voiced by well known actors and comedians.
  • Events. The roadshow took comedians and scientists to major UK cities to debate their favourite ugly animal. Attendees would then vote and each area would have a local ‘ugly mascot’.

They may be ugly animals, but used so cleverly, they’ve become a beautiful engagement strategy.

When you’re selling something no one wants

 The environment is a bit like gravity. Most people are able to ignore it, most of the time. But no one could live without it.

Anyone who works in environmental communications knows that the environment can sometimes be a tough sell.

Fancy some seafood with a side serving of guilt over dwindling fish stocks?

How about driving to work with a sense of creeping anxiety about carbon emissions from petrol?

Or maybe you’d like a cup of coffee complete with pesticides, food miles, and unfair agricultural policies in developing nations?

Many solutions have been proposed to this. Try to avoid giving people a sense of powerlessness, give them a clear action to take, share good news when you have it.

But is it enough? With climate change now an inevitable reality and examples of extreme weather events proliferating , can we really afford to keep sugar coating the message?

In her book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein talks about ‘crisis capitalism’ - the idea that big entrenched interests use times of crisis to push through otherwise unpalatable changes to laws and societal norms, to the detriment of people and the environment.

Maybe it’s time for us to do the same thing. Maybe we need to start using our marketing knowledge to link serious, newsworthy environmental catastrophes to the environmental factors behind them.

So we can have a mega storm brought to you by Dangerous Climate ChangeTM. Or a Pacific Gyre full of plastic rubbish brought to you by OverconsumptionTM.

Imagine if these bad guys had their own logos, taglines and huge advertising spend to back them up. Maybe that way, we could take advantage of the negative publicity and 'shock to the system' of these adverse events to actually link them with their real, scientifically proven causes.


Not so Great Barrier Reef


Conservationists in Australia spend a lot of time trying to get various threatened bits of nature to be taken seriously  by the public, in order to build pressure to protect them. One way to do this is to compare them to some iconic place that everyone knows and loves: the chosen site might be as striking as Uluru, as filled with life as the Daintree rainforest, as important as the Great Barrier Reef.

These icons are the rock solid, absolutely dependable class of environmental sites. Everyone knows them and a lot of people have visited them. If they were music, they’d be Classic Hits that everyone can hum along to. If they were supermarkets, they’d be Coles and Woollies.

But recent news shows that all isn’t necessarily well with the icons of Australia’s environment. The waters of the Great Barrier Reef are suffering from a slew of proposed coal and gas projects, which will boost existing huge amounts of ship traffic over the coral and fish below.

All this means that the Reef could actually lose its World Heritage listing. That’s a bit like having your knighthood taken off you – embarrassing and bad for the wallet. Many of the tourists who spend $6 billion a year could be turned off by the idea of visiting a mere ex-iconic reef, and spend their dollars elsewhere.

From an environmental communications perspective, potentially losing iconic status is PR gold. Would you rather read a story titled ‘Peter Jones awarded a knighthood’ or ‘Sir Paul McCartney to be stripped of his knighthood’?  With an existing household name, the work of getting the audience interested is done for you.

Psychology studies show that people fear a potential loss more than than they value a potential gain. It’s called ‘loss aversion’ .  So referencing the potential loss of a major Aussie icon is definitely going to grab attention effectively.

Gimmicks: A breath of fresh air

When I first visited Beijing in 1999, owning a private car was illegal. Taxis and bikes ruled the streets. Venturing back in 2004, I found that car ownership had skyrocketed, and the city streets were mired in Bangkok-style gridlock.

Cars and industrial pollution mean that Beijing and surrounds have been choking on air so bad, it’s off the scale.

It’s not like the locals haven’t been aware of this issue. Pollution is definitely on the public radar in China.

Two little girls my friend used to babysit drew the sun as a red smudge instead of the yellow ball you'd expect. 'Fair enough.' she said. 'That's what they see.'

When I travelled in China myself, people on the train would constantly start up chats. On hearing we were from Australia, they would often say 'Ah yes - you have a clean environment there, don't you?'

Recently a Chinese entrepreneur has started selling cans of fresh air, demonstrating  that, when environmental communication fails or people become inured to it, there's always gimmicks

Selling cans of air is a gimmick, and it's having the desired effect. A concrete item says something an op ed or a brochure never can. It embodies the satire it's meant to convey.  It focuses attention on an issue people had started to take for granted. And it applies political pressure in a whole new way.

As a film critic might say: 'It's funny because it's real.'