Beyond the People in the Room: How to Engage a Broader Audience on Climate Issues

One of my favorite parts of my job is traveling to different cities and towns across America and giving workshops about climate communications. Not only do I have the opportunity to meet extraordinary people working in local government and business who are passionate about climate change, but I get to witness firsthand the work local people are doing to build support for and implement climate solutions.

I recently went to St. Louis, Missouri for the National Adaptation Forum (NAF), where more than 1,000 participants from the public and private sectors gathered to exchange ideas and information about adapting to climate impacts. The NAF started with a high-energy plenary that was presented as a town hall-style gathering, including opportunities for people to address the group and express what they hoped to bring to and take away from the NAF.

As participants spoke, and as others tweeted about the comments being made, selected tweets were posted to the wide screen in the room. Most commented on the level of energy in the room as the nation’s best climate adaptation professionals prepared to spend the next three days working together.

But one tweet in particular framed the reason I was there.  As a speaker pointed out that the NAF had doubled in size in two years, commenting on how impressive a gathering was in the plenary, someone tweeted, “How do we reach beyond the 800 people in this room?”

How, indeed?

Every other year, the NAF gathers the growing adaptation community to “foster knowledge exchange, innovation, and mutual support for a better tomorrow.” (Regional adaptation forums are scheduled for the intervening years.)  For climate adaptation practitioners in local government, the NAF is an opportunity for professional development, and an opportunity to contribute to the development of a broad community of practice around climate change adaptation.

I was there to deliver one of our climate communication workshops. Few climate professionals have ready access to polling, marketing, or communications research and training. Our workshop provided a detailed look at ongoing climate opinion research and analysis, and described how specific learnings from opinion and values research can be integrated into effective climate outreach. We presented values-based message frames along with specific communications learnings before walking participants through assessments of effective and ineffective message frames and language. 

Our goal was to provide a hands-on environment where participants could deconstruct climate communications and begin to apply those lessons to their own approaches to communication on climate adaptation impacts, policies, and programs.

There is ample opportunity – given the right messaging and framing – to advance Americans’ understanding of the climate challenge by drawing issues together in a manner that engages peoples’ core values and concerns while advancing positive solutions to the range of issues related to or exacerbated by climate change.

So, how do we reach beyond our core audiences – beyond “the usual suspects” – to reach broader audiences?

The name of the game is mainstreaming. Climate change is not a narrow issue, yet it currently is of concern to a narrow population. The fact that climate affects virtually every facet of individual and community well-being requires that communicators mainstream the issue as a driving factor in health, safety, security, prosperity, and community for all Americans.

The sooner climate professionals begin to understand the pivotal role of effective communications in their work, the easier it will be for them to reach ordinary people with information that is relevant, impactful, and useful.

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