Social Impact & Advocacy

Where Do Your Audiences Sit in the Climate Debate? At the Very Center

Dionna Humphrey & Sean Keady

April 24th, 2023

climate pr

As part of Earth Month, we’re sharing a series of weekly blog posts with strategies, insights and conversations with our Environment & Climate PR team.

It’s been a long time since “An Inconvenient Truth” was released. An even longer time that we’ve understood the basic science and stark consequences of pumping carbon into our atmosphere with abandon. We’ve raised the alarm, and we’ve raised the dollars—but when it comes to new, existing and aging audiences, we have a long way to go to get them engaged in a way that elevates discussions beyond the tired tropes and into a conversation that actually moves policymakers, global leaders, corporations and our communities to take climate change seriously and take real action. 

The stakes of that conversation are getting higher every year, and the sheer magnitude of the problem feels nothing short of overwhelming. However, the onus is on us as communicators to make sense of it and ensure we’re leveraging the right messages at the right time to move the right audiences. That all starts with identifying your theory of change and then identifying the audience you need to move and the actions you need them to take to advance your goals. 

For too long the climate change movement focused on simply highlighting the problem to bring a sense of urgency and demonstrate the current and future impacts of climate change. But identifying the problem is only one step in the process, and focusing too much on it can leave audiences feeling paralyzed by the massive scale of the issue, unsure where to start to address it meaningfully. This result stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of audiences and a failure to reevaluate those audiences over time. 

You hear a lot about “meeting people where they are” for a reason—it’s the smart approach. But whom do you need to reach and move to advance your theory of change? If you think about a ladder of engagement from understanding the problem to grasping the solutions to taking action, where is your target audience and what is the next step to advance them to the next rung of that ladder? What messages will motivate them? What messengers will influence them? What media do they consume and where are they online? 

Finding a signal amid the noise can feel daunting, but it’s incumbent on us to make sure the solutions to the climate crisis feel just as urgent, compelling and present as the problem itself, and that requires us to understand who will be receiving the messages. A story is not complete without a resolution, and being able to point to the people and projects doing real work that pushes the needle is how you keep audiences interested and engaged instead of exhausted and tuned out.

So how do we go about doing that? 

As part of our work with one green tech organization, we took painstaking efforts to understand the need to educate audiences about the problem—the climate change-driven urban “heat island” effect—and were careful to pair that with scalable solutions that cities can start investing in now. We painted a vivid picture of what a cool, sustainable city could look like. While we never shied away from naming the scale of the problem, we also balanced that by emphasizing the potential for existing solutions to have real impact—if only action is taken to implement them. 

Working with environmental organizations advocating for solutions to the crisis facing the Colorado River, we recognized that our audiences were motivated to take action when they understood what could be done to address the problem. For that reason, we consistently center the stories of the people making those solutions a reality. More recently, we’ve prioritized highlighting the immense federal funding opportunities presented by the Inflation Reduction Act and other sources to invest in bold solutions that build the long-term water security and climate resiliency of the West. Our audience wants to see a path forward, and our strategy reflects that. Over the course of many years working on this issue, the result has been steadily increasing public demand for tangible action.

People by and large will not act simply because you tell them to—it’s as true for climate change as for any other issue. Some might heed the call, but these are often the individuals who have a longstanding relationship with an organization or already know the issues inside and out. Maybe they even work in the issue space. It can be easy to rely only on that small cohort, but doing so too often leaves a number of audiences out of the conversation. 

You can have the best strategy in the world—with stunning visuals, a compelling theory of change and enough resources to sustain the campaign into infinity—but without centering your strategy around your audiences, and telling real stories featuring real solutions, that strategy and those resources won’t drive your message home. After all, an educated, energized and engaged audience is the greatest renewable resource one can have. 

Want to learn more about how to center your audiences to achieve your goals? Get in touch today.