Bangkok: Earlier this week I travelled to Thailand to participate in a symposium about generating awareness of climate adaptation through media and entertainment. This program, officially entitled “Reaching the Masses: Building Critical Public Awareness of Climate Change Adaptation,” was organized under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program. This trip seemed so familiar: another early morning departure from Hong Kong airport. Except this time the United Nations is paying my way, and I’m sitting in the back of the plane rather than the front. What I really enjoyed was to finally express myself about a topic that is very important to me. I could not imagine doing this as a corporate executive.
I was honored to have been asked by the UN and by the Media Alliance (an Asian organization modelled on the Ad Council in the United States) to offer the morning’s keynote address. It was a great deal of fun researching a topic for which I have never spoken about publicly, and I especially enjoyed corresponding with Helen, an impressive and concerned environmentalist with whom I cycled across the country last summer. Helen saved my hide in helping to shape my address with some great research and context at a time when I as very distracted during my first post-corporate week. This is the gist of what I said to the 100 or so people, mostly NGO-types, at the symposium:-
I’ll start with a confession and a question. The confession: I know just a little about climate change, but what I do know scares me a lot. I am especially concerned about the wellness of the planet for future generations, including my seven-year old son.
Here’s the question: can you guesstimate the level of awareness of climate change in Asia? I asked for a show of hands for those who think the awareness in Asia exceeds 50%. About seven or eight hands went up.
The optimists win: according to the Gallup Organization, who conducted a study of global opinions on climate change, just over half of all Asian are aware of climate change. That means nearly half of the population of the world’s most crowded continent is not aware of climate change.
From my vantage point, folks, we have two real problems: First, climate change is real. Second, there is a huge gap in awareness about this reality.
I then pointed to last year’s media coverage in the US of climate change, noting that coverage slipped to levels not seen since 2005. This is despite a series of climatic disasters last year.
The moral of the story is, if we can’t rely on the journalists to get the message out accurately, then we have to taker matters into our own hands.
In thinking about a communications strategy, there are two dimensions: the message and the medium. On the message, we know why climate change is a difficult topic for the public. It’s science-based, and many people have a hard time getting their minds around that, including the scientists. Climate change is such a big problem it’s not my problem. And if it is my problem then there;’s nothing I can do about it.
For these reasons, I believe the climate change message needs to appeal to people’s hearts, not just to their brains. Any effective messaging of climate change will make the issue: personal; instill a sense of accountability and responsibility; and incite a call to action.
In getting such a message out to the masses, television is obviously the medium of choice. But to reach the hearts of the masses, this message needs to go beyond the :30 second spot. Collaboration with creative industries is essential. The creative industries need to take action to embed the climate change issue into pop culture, weaving climatic issues into the storylines of popular dramas and comedies; on the talk shows, and into music and movies. To make the issue topical and talked-about and top-of-mind.
I then cited the example (which Helen reminded me), of drunken driving in the US. Public health officials introduced the notion of a designated driver and enlisted the support of Hollywood, of the networks, and of talent to get this message across. The message of designated driving permeated pop culture and changed behaviors. Today a designated driver is a common, socially acceptable and responsible behavior in the US.
The planet needs a designated driver. (That was my favorite line!).
I then cited a number of case studies, some of which I have been involved, that demonstrate collaboration among media/entertainment companies on CSR issues. My final video, “Open Possibilities,” was created by Sun Microsystems and I think captures well the biggest, wildest ride on Earth:
I explained that to really reach the masses it’s important to think youth, think open platform, think open possibilities.
In media, this is perhaps the most exciting time ever. We’re connected. We’re empowered. This world is not only flattened, in some part’s it’s been turned upside down.
I closed with some ancient wisdom on getting a message across: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” by Confucius.
It was personally fascinating to be a part of this dialogue. While I have been passionate about this issue for some time, this was the first time I had been given the opportunity to speak publicly about climate change, and I am so glad I grabbed the microphone.
It was very interesting to also mix with a number of NGO’s, including the UNEP, the Asia Pacific Disaster Preparedness Center, the Asia Development Bank, Plan International, MTV Exit, as well as many governmental types. There’s a striking difference in thinking between these very well-meaning NGO executives and the media/business types who were there. It was useful to bridge these interconnected worlds.
You’ll be hearing much more from me about environmental issues going forward. I am also launching an initiative on this blog, Go Green [see the dedicated Go Green page above] as I attempt to use my Travels to highlight environmental concerns, and provide a catalyst for individual action.