Communicating about Climate: Knowing Your Audience to Inspire Greater Action

April 21, 2023  • Amy Glassman & Clarke Williams

During a conversation about climate storytelling on the Aspen Ideas: Climate stage, the founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, Anthony Leiserowitz, shared that:

[In our research over the last 15 years] we quickly realized that Americans don’t have a single viewpoint about climate change and people at the time would too easily separate the public into two Believers and Deniers. That’s unfortunately way too simplistic and really not very helpful because one of the first cardinal rules of effective communication is: know your audience. Who are they? What do they know? What do they think they know? Who do they trust? Where do they get their information? What are their underlying values? Only once you understand who they are that you can then go more than halfway to meet them where they are and help them take the next step in their learning journey, not yours.

At its core, climate communications uses the same main principles as any other type of communication, but because of the complexity of climate challenges and solutions and how divisive the topic can be, it is important to take a careful approach when sharing stories to spur greater climate action.

There are three universal truths for good communications campaigns: You must know your audience, you must know how to reach your audience, and you must know your goal. 

Below, we will break down how to apply these three truths to climate-specific campaigns to effectively drive your audience to take action.

1.Know Your Audience

Every type of communication requires that you know your audience, but it is especially important to understand your audience when it comes to climate change communication, which is plagued by deep political divides and partisan dog whistles. 

To create meaningful messaging that drives behavior change, you must know what is important to the people you want to persuade. Trying to establish a one-size-fits-all approach to any climate messaging campaign could cost you your audience. 

Some of the details about your audience you need to know before building your climate campaign are: 

  • What are the attitudes and beliefs of your audience? 
  • What do they value? 
  • What demographics or age groups do they fall in? 
  • What are climate-specific key words or phrases that resonate with your audience, and which ones cause disengagement?
  • What motivates them to care about climate change?

You can gather this information through existing research based on your audience demographics, but a better approach is a pre-campaign evaluation. This evaluation could look like surveys, polling, interviews or focus groups.

Although evaluation costs more up front, it saves you money and time in the long run to do your due diligence before launching a communications campaign.

Once you have a better understanding of your audience, you can curate messaging that speaks directly to their interest in climate change and drives them to action based on the things you know motivate them. 

2. Know How to Reach Your Audience

Once you have learned more about your audience’s attitudes and beliefs, you must then identify how they prefer to receive messaging, and what platforms will keep them engaged. It is a good idea to incorporate this research into your pre-campaign evaluation. 

While you want your message to be in front of as many people as possible, it is also vital to get it in front of the right audience, and to create a convenient pathway to participation. 

For instance, you may be able to reach a wide audience by using a television commercial or newspaper article, but do those media outlets give your audience an immediate way to act? Also, how do you know that the audience seeing your messaging will care about it? 

Maybe a social media campaign makes more sense for your campaign. Or maybe an in-person event is the best way to keep your audience’s attention. You want to figure this out during the planning phase, and if possible, take it one step further by doing a mid-campaign evaluation to adjust course as needed.

Additionally, make sure you are using the right type of messaging for the platform you choose. For example, if you were creating climate communications for Instagram, it would not make sense to write a blog post for that platform. You would instead want to use something visual like graphics, infographics, video or photos. 

By identifying where your audience prefers to receive information and what the most convenient way to drive participation is, you can ensure you are not wasting your efforts. 

Climate change is an immediate threat to our planet and humanity, so climate campaigns should prioritize maximizing participation over maximizing reach. It is better to have a small group of people taking climate action than it is to have a large group of informed people who never participate in solutions.

3. Know Your Goal

It goes without saying that you should know your goal for any communications campaign, but when it comes to climate change, there are too many possibilities to create broad messaging. Instead of creating a mixed bag of climate solutions for your audience, give them one at a time.

This does not mean you can only have one goal, but instead of addressing every problem and solution your campaign focuses on, start with one. Create a theory of change with several smaller goals that lead to your ultimate goal and focus your call-to-action messaging on the most important goal first. 

Once your audience has engaged in your first call-to-action, it will be easier to get them involved in more climate action opportunities. Climate change is no longer an awareness issue, it is an action issue. Every climate communications campaign must have a clear call-to-action. If you want to set your campaign up for success, your audience will need to know what that success looks like and how they can participate.  

These climate communications tips and more can be found in the Climate Communications Toolkit from Redwood Climate Communications, which was written and designed by two of the Aspen Institute’s 2023 Future Leaders, Emily Prettyman and Jessica Harrington. Please download the toolkit and use it to tell your climate story.