I often think about the ‘how’ questions. Especially when it comes to making environmental communication for public awareness more effective. This article reminds you of what environmental communication is and why it matters. But it also looks at some examples and how and when to effectively set up an environmental communication campaign.
There already exist industries that can influence the behavior of the public. And these industries are especially effective when it comes to promoting consumption. We have the knowledge!
So, why is influencing public’s pro-environmental behavior still such a challenge?
Environmental communication lacks accessible formats that focus on building relationships with its audience. We can learn from fields such as strategic communication, marketing, or sociology. What these fields do is they show us the importance of getting to know our audience better. So, good communicators focus on building relationships on a personal level. They get to know their audience’s communities and they learn to speak ‘their language’.
For instance, images of hungry polar bears may make the climate crisis quite distant. In fact, as distant as the polar bears to many of us actually are.
Currently, the environmental communication for public awareness emphasizes the importance of the environment. Often even too much. All that to such an extent that it tends to forget about relevant forms of reaching out to those concerned. We cannot expect to change the behavior of people that we’re not reaching with our messages.
How to convince a bunch of cool snowboarders about the importance of pro-environmental behavior?
Use their playgrounds as an example. Images of melting glaciers or mountain areas that no longer receive enough snow might get their attention. It touches them directly.
Environmental Communication for the public: Their awareness and beyond.
Environmental communication messages may sound different to each of us. And our perceptions of environmental issues differ based on various aspects. For example, it changes based on where we’re from, our interests or the stages of life we’re currently at.
So, we need to focus on setting the right objectives and targeting the right audience. Only then we start building up public awareness and influential environmental communication campaign.
Before we communicate, it’s good to learn as much about our audience as possible. By getting to know the audience, we get insights in our target group’s behavior, needs, values and motives.
Knowing about our audience’s place or community attachment can help us set the right tone too.
Additionally, knowledge of their geographic area reveals local environmental issues our audience faces. No matter if they are aware of them or not. But relating to these issues makes our message by default more relevant to them.
How to convince a bunch of cool snowboarders about the importance of pro-environmental behavior? Use their playgrounds as an example. Images of melting glaciers, or mountain areas receiving less snow get their attention. For them these messages are more relatable and tangible.
Familiarity with our audience sets more realistic objectives of our environmental communication campaign. It may still be hard to transform a rural farmer into a polar bear conservationist. But with the right words and local angle to the problem, we may at least get her interested.
What is environmental communication?
Environmental communication, simply like any other form of communication, is based on picking the right words or images to convey an important message.
When I researched the definition of environmental communication, Besley (2015) made me grin. Exactly my thoughts, I thought! He criticizes the environmental communication field trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. Communication focuses on picking the right words or images to convey an important message. Environmental communication, like any other form of communication, does that too. The adjective ‘environmental’ only shows it concerns nature and the environment.
So, environmental communication, is a means of influencing public environmental awareness. It is not by default pro-environmental but rather about public relationships with nature. It appears in many different forms ranging from audio, visual to written messages. It happens on many different levels. That means it concerns the general public, academics, policy-makers or even the governments.
How does Environmental Communication work?
Scientifically speaking, environmental communication borrows elements of risk communication and science communication.
When it comes to risk communication, it is not always linked to environmental risks. It deals with incalculable, man-made threats that we know about but don’t see. Its main aim is to educate the concerned audience on how to best respond to these threats. So, environmental communication aims to educate the public about overcoming environmental threats. It suggests how the public should react to the changes affecting our and nature’s well-being.
For science communication, the similarity lies in the motive. Environmental communication borrows the function of making science accessible. It ensures the public, media, policy makers and other audience gets access to science. It just does it from an environmental angle.
To sum up: environmental Communication has 2 main social functions, through which we can;
Educate, inform and empower people.
It’s a pragmatic way to make people grasp, feel and change for the better.
Influence people’s behaviour.
Through for instance shaping or constituting certain ways of seeing the relations of us humans towards nature and the environment. In other words, it conveys messages that can frame the ways, in which our audience perceives the world. For example, in a way that portrays certain behaviours as normal.
Advertising, marketing and public outreach have been basically doing this for decades. These disciplines influence the public’ trends by communicating values and needs to the carefully selected target group.
These fields have long been sourcing from interdisciplinary research valuing demographic data, sociological trends or psychological incentivisation.
On the academic level; communication of a problem should get people to change their behaviour no matter what field it is in. Environmental communication would, therefore, benefit from drawing from different fields and not solely from natural sciences perspectives
Why does environmental communication actually matter?
It is saddening that organisations that offer solutions to environmental challenges? at hand often lack the capacity to reach out to the public.
As a result, we take less fortunate decisions, because we don’t have access to the right information. Little awareness can even lead to tolerating unfair practices, exploitation of nature and people for the vision of corporate profit.
An Environmental communication campaign can empower the public and raise their awareness about issues affecting them. It is influential and informative and potentially offers solutions at hand to people, businesses, or even governments.
Environmental communication also matters for influencing the media by feeding broadcasting and publishing media with accessible, up-to-date information.
Think of where we find most of the environmental information. Environmental information mostly comes from official sources, that report about the environment in rather formal or even conservative ways. This creates a large gap between these institutions and the general public, especially when it comes to understanding the information.
But it is also hard work for the journalists. If media are to communicate about the environment using only the official sources, cracking the ‘official’ language also takes time. Time that journalists don’t have when writing about the environment.
Ending up with plain news that inform rather than inspire participation of the public is then no surprise.
Accessibility of environmental information
Therefore, effective environmental communication is important for setting a better tone, in which the general public learns about environmental issues. Tone that speaks directly to the public and inspires it to actively participate in pro-environmental behaviours.
Just as many environmental problems relate to our behaviors, so they do to how we learn about the problems.
By now we know that carefully targeted and crafted messages relating to environmental change can influence people to change. So, we need more carefully thought-through messages that relate to specific people at specific locations. We need to ‘translate the official’ formal languages into journalist-friendly forms that inspire the general public to act.
Let’s have a look at some examples of how environmental communication can raise public awareness and influence pro-environmental behaviour.
Examples of effective environmental communication.
It’s not about perfecting your messages and then leaving the people with it alone. Effective environmental communication doesn’t end with informing people and throwing them into the abyss of environmental doom and gloom.
It’s a rather long-term process of building up relationships leading the publics’ next steps to a change.
In silence, I would like to say that it is also their way of marketing. Marketing does not have to be evil and works on many more levels than promoting consumption.
Patagonia is not only an outdoor clothing company. It is a community of outdoor enthusiasts and environmental activists that is rapidly growing all around the globe. Amongst all, it is a retail pioneer that actively demotes consumption for the sake of environmental protection. And despite the fact that Patagonia encourages people not to buy their products, the company’s worth as of 2018 reached $1 billion.
Patagonia supports and empowers communities around the world that face environmental injustice and helps them overcome environmental challenges.
All with the priority of creating a better world for everyone. It emphasises well-being of threatened communities and the well-being resulting from the relationships we have with nature.
Patagonia’s environmental communication campaign empowered many communities around the world and inspired many consumers to go beyond pro-environmental behaviour. It crafts very touching, community-inspired stories that people can relate to. Stories that in fact turn consumers into environmental activists.
Protect Our Winters (POW)
POW is an excellent example of how to convince groups of snowboarders, skiers and mountaineers about the importance of pro-environmental behaviour. Their environmental communication strategy adopted a powerful activist stance. It realised the importance of connecting to people, who are directly affected by climate change – the winter sports communities.
POW speaks the language of these communities, but it also speaks the language of well-informed environmental scientists. Languages that are like chalk and cheese at first, but their knowledge proves important. It transmits the messages back and forth, as POW listens to the communities the same way it listens to the scientists publishing their research.
But most importantly, POW is concerned for the environment and the homes of each of these communities. They relate to the local communities because of their geographical outreach and ambassadors from around the world. But their outreach, similarly to Patagonia, goes beyond the snow enthusiasts. But through them, they manage to raise awareness of political-environmental issues amongst the broader public, where these communities come from.
What is it that works for Patagonia and POW?
When looking into what is it that makes environmental communication work, a certain pattern seems to be emerging:
- Showing what is normal: highlighting pro-environmental behaviour as normal simply shifts the way people think about how they should act. For instance, Patagonia promotes recycling and fixing of old clothes, or not purchasing new clothes when not needed. When a company that sells clothes does that, it clearly demonstrates that this is the norm – how it is usually done.
- Personal Appeal: As Lauren MacCallum from POW UK said: “don’t introduce yourself as an activist but as who you really are.” She is a snowboarder from the Scottish Highlands and she managed to build up a solid community of environmental activists. They have a good influence on not only the snowboarder’s and mountain lovers’ pro-environmental behaviour, but also on the communities living there. Because as her quote concludes “activism without a community is fucking useless”.
- Target specific concerns, motivations and cultural, religious and political values: Both Patagonia and POW manage to target and empower specific communities. They both target the outdoor communities, but both from the local angles relating to the direct cultural and natural environments of the communities.
- Eco-centric vs. Ego-centric values: Both campaigns promote the wellbeing of nature and communities. But why is that interesting is that they craft their messages in a language that is approachable to the given communities. The communities listen and reflect on the relationships they have established with nature and how these influence their wellbeing.
What are the forms of environmental communication for the public?
The forms of environmental communication range from an officially published report to a conversation about nature to an environmental campaign.
There is no single form of environmental communication and each form has a different function, content and context. While conversations may inspire the public to participate in pro-environmental behaviours, the official forms are more relevant for decision makers.
Environmental communication happens online and offline, using words, images, videos or the combination of all. With 4.3 billion active internet users, internet formats are becoming the most informative, educational and influential for the public. That ranges from online news, social media posts and campaigns, images and movies. The offline formats extend their reach to children or elderly through books, newspapers and magazines, advertisements, talks and many more.
No matter the format, environmental communication tells powerful stories about the environment. Story-telling, therefore, supports all verbal or non-verbal formats of communication, where environment sets the scene.
On the internet we see movies, or images that show the impacts of the environmental change. With words, the stories can go deeper and leave a more emotional impact.
Advertising and online marketing both increasingly borrow stories that relate to the environment and to the people these campaigns target. By inspiring pro-environmental behaviour through their campaigns, they also raise environmental awareness of the wider public.
How to improve your Environmental Communication for public awareness.
Before you even consider a specific form for your environmental communication campaign, it is essential to think of a few things from the beginning:
- Objectives – What do you want to achieve? This could be very specific. In fact, the more precise you are with forming your objectives, the better you can imagine where your campaign may be necessary and whom to address.
- Place – Where do you want to achieve it? Information on where the problem occurs can not only help you better define your audience, but you will also learn about the geography of your audience. Any information from the affected region leads to better targeted messages.
- Audience – Who do you want to engage? Learn about the further demographics of who has the capacity to change anything about a problem. Learn the language of those who you want to act upon your campaign. Target communities rather than individuals and learn about how they respond to different messages. And last but not least, once you are sure of the answers for the above questions;
- Medium and Channels – How do you want to engage your audience? With a clear objective and as much information about the locality of the problem and your audience, you can start crafting your message.
- Pick a form; Social Media / Podcast / News / Videos / Blogs…
- In any case learn to ‘speak your audiences’ language’. Use language that your audience can relate to, so that your message is clear to them. Consider terminology, tone and but also length and complexity of your communication.
Environmental Communication and the public
So, environmental communication is a commitment. It’s about learning to understand what the general public can relate to and about sticking around with them. Bring stories that they can relate to on local and familiar levels. Stories that touch the communities emotionally. The words and images are important, but they are not going to change the minds of people who have no relation to them. If we want to inspire change, first we have to learn, then understand and talk only once we know how to.