Facing the sustainability communication challenge: turning negative information into positive action
I spoke to a university professor of environmental science recently. What he told me was eye opening as much as heart-rending.
He said, “You know, I see our young students enrolling in college full of energy and hope to address the climate crisis and make a positive impact. But by the time they graduate, after hearing about all the things that go wrong – from biodiversity loss to climate change -, they are just exhausted and hopeless.”
This is a problem for our society because those college students are indeed our future. But this is also a problem for the communication professionals who need to find the right way to drive positive action and achieve the desired behaviour when talking about sustainability.
Sustainability is not only a complex topic: it carries a number of distressing information. From toxic waste and pollution to deforestation, rising sea levels, extreme climate events, poverty, and human rights violations (just to name a few), the issues we are facing are so many and seem so difficult to solve, that feeling overwhelmed is nothing but a natural reaction. Looking at such a disturbing scenario, people could well choose flight over fight.
It therefore comes with no surprise that according to a recent analysis on videos about sustainability developed by QuickFrame, those sharing a positive, solution-oriented narrative attracted 50 times more viewers than those focusing on negative messaging.
Can we then just focus on emotional, encouraging storytelling and optimistic messages when communicating sustainability? Shouldn’t we just leave out ‘the bitter truth’, the numbers and the statistics to avoid scaring out the public and fuelling inaction?
I personally believe we should not.
There’s definitely an ethical reason for that: informing and educating the public about what’s really at stake is indeed an ethical duty of all public relations practitioners, as they are tasked, as a professional group, to aid an informed debate.
But there’s also another set of reasons, which is rooted in purely strategic considerations.
First, effective communication is about crafting the right message for the right audience. And as for most topics, there is no one-size-fits-all communication for sustainability. What one person finds motivating may dishearten someone else.
It is therefore crucial to duly research and understand the worldview, personal beliefs, and emotional barriers of our target audience.
Second, we always need to meet our audience where they are. Anyone familiar with the so-called marketing funnel knows that the journey of a customer goes through different stages.
The action or conversion phase (what PR professionals would call behavioural objective) might well be facilitated by positive, encouraging messaging as the QuickFrame analysis seems to suggest.
Yet, the very first step toward that end goal actually starts from awareness. And generating awareness about sustainability issues means honestly communicating the evidence, the bitter truth, in the first place.
To muddle this picture, an academic paper on the effect of negative message framing on green consumption has shown that, powered by the emotion of shame, negatively framed messages are more effective than positively framed ones in prompting consumers to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.
So how do we solve this puzzle? I personally embrace the Latin phrase in medio stat virtus when it comes to communicating negative information to drive positive action. Sustainability communication, in this sense, is a fine balancing act.
We need to understand who our audience groups are: their worldviews, and what motivates them, what makes them flee, and where they are in their sustainability journey.
We need to be forthright about the issues we are facing from an environmental and social point of view, as well as about the negative consequences of inaction: this is key to generate awareness and support informed decision making.
But then, we need to also address our public’s anxiety and craft solution-oriented messaging: we have to inspire and boost the audience’s confidence about what is possible, providing them a clear, achievable picture of success to aim for.
Negative messaging, what I called ‘the bitter truth’, is the most effective at educating the public about sustainability related issues. It is the very foundation of sustainability communication. But it needs to go hand in hand with a messaging that is able to encourage hope, the building block of positive action.