Tag: Facebook

For Environmental Groups, the Red Herring of Climate Change Denial is a Valuable Opportunity to “Mine the Middle”

Climate change denial is an all too popular refrain. National media outlets frequently herald its prevalence. Recently, the New York Times questioned which was worse, climate denial or climate hypocrisy, while the Washington Post editorial board opined that climate change denial is “unforgivable.” NPR routinely covers both climate change denial and climate misinformation.

Politicians do their part to keep the issue top-of-mind. Since the environment is among the many fault lines separating Democrats and Republicans, climate change denial is a characterization frequently leveled against lawmakers. One non-partisan policy group assembles a list of climate change deniers in both the House of Representatives and Senate with each new Congress.

On social media, claims of climate change denial are predictably rampant. A 2022 study published by Nature finds “a large increase in ideological polarization during UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), following low polarization between COP20 and COP25” based on an analysis of Twitter data from 2014 to 2021.

The unassailable truth about climate change denial, however, is that it scarcely exists in America. According to a 2021 poll by the AP, the NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, a mere 10% of Americans don’t believe that climate change is real, whereas the vast majority of Americans (75%) believe that it is.

These findings correspond with a 2021 poll by the Washington Post and ABC News in which 67% of respondents regard climate change as a serious problem, let alone acknowledge its existence. Similarly, a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center finds that majorities of Americans believe society is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.

The bluster surrounding climate change denial is a red herring that says more about our balkanized culture than the attitudes of the average American. For environmental groups, this represents a valuable opportunity to temper today’s counterproductively divisive rhetoric on the topic and, in so doing, compel more people to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

Think of the approach as “mining the middle”—using common ground issues, including the recognition of climate change’s importance, to educate and mobilize stakeholders. However, since various research studies reveal significant differences in attitudes on the topic based on age, race, ethnicity and political affiliation, organizations will need to be targeted and nuanced in their efforts.

Prioritize the stakeholders who matter most. Given that attitudes and behaviors of donors, volunteers and advocates are markedly different, environmental groups should use market research to identify the population segments with the greatest potential to be current and future supporters while assessing their awareness of and attitudes toward the organization and its peers. Without such clarity, organizations will have no choice but to rely on one-size-fits-all engagement strategies that will inevitably prove inefficient.

Think locally, not just globally. Climate change is typically framed in universal terms, but stakeholders generally view environmental issues through a local lens. Therefore, while environmental groups should examine the global causes of climate change and the need for a global response to counter its effects, they should also emphasize how climate change is impacting local ecosystems and communities. Likewise, they would do well to create local connections with community leaders, lawmakers and other stakeholders.

Lean into the science. For most environmental groups, there is no greater means of gaining trust and influence with stakeholders than demonstrating their use of science. Organizations should explain the extent to which they use scientific data to educate stakeholders about environmental issues, inform policy prescriptions and measure the efficacy of their conservation efforts. They, too, should highlight the scientific credentials of key staffers.

Speak in measured terms. The news media are using increasingly alarmist terms when addressing climate change, including “climate catastrophe” and “climate emergency,” according to a 2021 study by the University of Colorado. However, such terms alienate large swaths of consumers, including those who prioritize environmental issues and those who are uncertain of climate change’s importance.

It’s not the responsibility of environmental groups to reduce polarization in society, but it is their mission to educate and mobilize stakeholders to protect the environment. Climate change is a singular threat that necessitates collective action in the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon. Mine the middle.

The founder and principal of Timbre Strategies, Bob Knott, has led brand studies on behalf of such environmental groups as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Everglades Foundation and Nature Conservancy while working with such Fortune 500 companies as DuPont, GE, Walmart and Waste Management to shape and communicate their environmental efforts.

When it Comes to Mea Culpas, Zuckerberg Is No Buffett

One needn’t be prescient to have anticipated the extraordinary spectacle of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week. Not only have leaders of both parties condemned fake news and Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections—manipulations enabled in no small measure by Facebook—the Cambridge Analytica breach reveals that social media is a new frontier that is loosely regulated.

Equally predictable was the steady cadence of tough questions directed at Mr. Zuckerberg by Democrats and Republicans alike. After all, the issues at hand are inexorably serious, as the Facebook CEO himself has repeatedly acknowledged. Given the inevitably disjointed and often cynical nature of Congressional hearings, Mr. Zuckerberg’s single best opportunity to manage Facebook’s reputation, while blunting the threat of legislation that could undermine the company’s business model, was his opening statement.

Mr. Zuckerberg used the opportunity to acknowledge Facebook’s errors, take personal responsibility for the missteps and pledge corrective action by the company. His was a smart, time-honored strategy that he discharged reasonably well. Not leaving well enough alone, however, Mr. Zuckerberg began his opening statement by proclaiming that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic company” that has helped give rise to the #MeToo movement and the March For Our Lives; he ended it by reminding lawmakers that his “top priority is our social mission” and to be “a positive force in the world.”

We understand the logic of Mr. Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook “brings the world closer together,” despite numerous research studies concluding that social media fosters entrenched ideological division: The more a company is perceived as contributing to society’s greater good, the greater its regulatory license to operate. Still, nearly two minutes of the Facebook CEO’s five-minute opening statement—40 percent in all—dwelled on how the company was focused on “all of the good connecting people can do.”

Compare Mr. Zuckerberg’s opening statement with that of Warren Buffet, which was delivered in September 1991 before a House subcommittee investigating the Salomon Brothers’ bond trading scandal. Mr. Buffett had recently become chairman of the firm, which was among Wall Street’s largest at the time, when it nearly became insolvent as a result of various trading abuses. Like Facebook, the stakes were high for Salomon Brothers: The firm’s actions affected the integrity of nation’s financial system, including the sale of treasury bonds, not to mention the livelihoods of more than 8,000 employees.

Mr. Buffet was short, if not sweet, in his opening statement. Speaking for little more than two minutes, he began by acknowledging: “The nation has a right to expect its rules and laws to be obeyed. And at Salomon, certain of these were broken.” It’s not simply that Mr. Buffett was plainspoken, he cut to the chase in addressing the firm’s misdeeds—and what needed to be done about them—ignoring the inevitable temptation to manage perceptions of the firm. As a result, lawmakers and other stakeholders surely saw Mr. Buffett as a straight shooter.

In turn, the Salomon Brothers Chairman spoke in stark terms—and with palpable anger in his voice—about how “…the past actions of Salomon are presently causing our 8,000 employees and their families to bear a stain.” In so doing, he conveyed that the firm’s failure to obey the law had painful social implications for those who worked for Salomon Brothers, including himself. Implicitly, but no less powerfully, Mr. Buffett signaled that the firm was largely comprised of people whose core values routinely impelled them to do the right thing.

Correspondingly, he made a point of inviting federal authorities to wield “the power of subpoena, the ability to immunize witnesses, and the power to prosecute for perjury.” One might argue that Mr. Buffett was demonstrating political guile in his remarks. Perhaps. Yet, when is the last time a chairman or CEO explicitly welcomed a governmental investigation into his or her business—before Congress, no less, and with overflowing media hoard in tow? Not this week.

Mr. Buffett ended his opening statement with a no-holds-barred ultimatum to employees that invariably resonated well beyond the firm: “After they first obey all rules, I then want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper, to be read by their spouses, children, and friends, with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter. If they follow this test, they need not fear my other message to them: Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Unadorned by the airbrushed language typical of today’s mea culpa, Mr. Buffett was efficient, sobering and, above all, practical. He acknowledged wrongdoing and pledged remedial action, but he also invited increased regulatory scrutiny of the firm’s operations. All told, more than half of his statement was focused on solving a problem of the firm’s creation. Moreover, Mr. Buffett called upon Salomon Brothers’ employees to hold themselves accountable not simply to the laws of the land, but societal norms as well. And for those who failed to do one or both, he left no doubt that they would meet with swift and severe consequences.

The purpose of our analysis isn’t to be critical of Mr. Zuckerberg. (Again, he performed reasonably well in a challenging climate; in fact, while he was testifying on Tuesday, Facebook’s share price finished up 4.5 percent.) Instead, we want to use Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress to draw attention to Mr. Buffett’s markedly different approach in an analogous situation. We regard the latter’s opening statement as the standard by which all others should be measured.

At the core of Mr. Buffett’s communications strategy was his evident awareness that there is seldom, if ever, a quick fix in regaining the trust of company’s stakeholders—and the greater the breach of trust, the longer the fix. No less instructively, he understood that the first essential step in regaining the trust of stakeholders is to recognize that positive headlines, while valuable, are no substitute for substantive, positive action by a company and its leaders.