Environmental policy needs effective messaging: Here’s what that means

People are increasingly onside with environmental measures, but difficulties mobilising change on the ground prevail. In our latest feature, we talk to behavioural experts who offer advice on how to approach and run effective public messaging campaigns to win support for green policies and initiatives.

When our sister title, Air Quality News, published its investigation into Greater Manchester’s ill-fated Clean Air Zone in February last year, several things were clear about failed efforts to introduce vehicle payments in the UK’s second largest regional economy. A disconnect between central and local governments, including a shortfall in scrappage and upgrade funds, caused problems. But the fatal blow arguably came through misinformation, confusion, and lack of clarity about proposals.

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So how can local authorities communicate with the public effectively? We have seen, time and again, how difficult it can be to win the battle for hearts and minds, especially when you’re talking about invisible, hidden, or future threats like air pollution, emissions, and climate change.  Nevertheless, strong evidence exists that growing numbers of people are onside.

According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2021 survey on global attitudes towards climate change, The People’s Climate Vote – the largest single study of opinion on this issue ever conducted – 64% of all respondents see climate change a worldwide threat. But harnessing that awareness in a way that mobilises change still presents an enormous challenge for those tasked with promoting policies and schemes.

That problem is compounded when we move beyond behavioural adaptation alone and ask people to make what they may consider a lifestyle or economic sacrifice. For example, paying to drive in Manchester, or ditching cars altogether in favour of public transport.

Kate Stanley is Executive Director of Frameworks UK, a non-profit communication organisation working charities, foundations, and other mission-focused organisations to help them talk about issues with the public in ways that support change. Established just over two years ago as the British arm of Frameworks Institute, based in Washington DC, since inception the relatively new British team has helped the likes of Joseph Roundtree Foundation, Wellcome Foundation, Royal Foundation, national public health bodies and local authorities to communicate more effectively.

‘I would probably start by thinking about the dominant mindsets or ways of thinking that people tend to bring to the big social and economic issues,’ Stanley replies when asked how organisations can create greater impact with campaigns. ‘How does the public, in Britain or an area, tend to feel about the subject? And for what reason? Once you know the answer to that question, you can avoid most mistakes because you know what your message is landing into.

‘This is about more than large populations. You need to understand what every segment thinks to avoid the big challenges. One of the mindsets we find causes issue, across different areas, is the idea of individualism,’ she continues. ‘A huge number of public health campaigns play into an individualistic mindset, starting with ‘what do we want people to do?’ Then ‘what do people need to change about what they do?’ This reinforces a sense that the problem lies with individuals not making better choices, or trying harder, rather than emphasising more systemic factors.’

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Big picture thinking

Stanley is quick to make clear that some issues can be solved with incremental steps, specifically when individual decisions are fundamental to unlocking change. But for more wholesale problems trying to focus on smaller factors can be ineffective.

Citing the difference between attempting to cut traffic to lower emissions and air pollution with the emphasis solely on our bodies and the environment, and making room for broader questions such as how we design roads and networks, Stanley’s point is that big public policy issues often need similar scope in terms of the surrounding conversation. Ultimately, this comes down to framing.

‘Framing is about making deliberate choices as to which ideas we share, and how we share them,’ she explains. ‘The way in which you frame your communications, the ideas you want to share and how you share them can lead to radical changes in how people think, feel and act. There’s lots of evidence about this, gathered over decades. The research that [Frameworks] does is to understand which ways of framing ideas, which ways of talking about issues, boost support in the direction you need it to go. This is something you can test empirically. It’s not about creativity in the first instance, it’s about empirical scientific testing. Then you can apply creativity in the campaign.

‘I think it’s really important for communicators to demonstrate that change is happening. Normalise the idea that action is already underway,’ she continues. ‘Indicate what you are doing, what partners are also doing, and show that change is happening now. So, it’s not authorities kicking back and saying, ‘you need to sort this out’ and ‘you need to do this or that’. You’re also taking responsibility. Talk about what you’re doing. Then say: ‘we also need this’. Normalising action, normalising change builds appetite and support for more.’

Transparency and trust

Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Exeter, Alice Moseley co-authored the book ‘Nudge Nudge, Think Think’, which advocates a deeper approach to public campaigning. Rather than focusing on subtle suggestions to promote behavioural change, known in marketing as nudge theory, she refers to what’s called the COM-B model.

Developed by Susan Michie, Maartje van Stralen, and Robert West, this emphasises three things – motivation, or the hearts and minds struggle which is overcome through open conversation, capability , meaning an individual’s psychological and physical ability to engage, and opportunity. In many ways, local authorities have the greatest control over the latter, although this can often be the most challenging to deliver. Simply put, if you want people to switch to a more sustainable form of transport, they need alternatives to the car.

‘People are less receptive to being nudged when the nudge itself is going to impact them economically. So, when we look at support for different types of nudge among members of the public, they’re not so accepting when, for example, it involves a default surcharge payment. Like a carbon tax on flying. As a society, we’d prefer to do that voluntarily, without steering. Transparency is key when there is a cost.

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‘Leeds is a good example. There have been some really influential citizen juries or citizen assemblies in the city on a whole range of environmental issues. Like the future of Leeds-Bradford Airport,’ she continues. ‘Openness is important. And perhaps messaging has to be done in a way which is acknowledging people’s own perspectives, why they might have completely legitimate concerns, questions or reservations. I would say more and more local authorities are engaging their publics through deliberation and discussion, for example citizens assemblies and democratic processes.

This ‘deliberative’ approach takes more time, and so-called ‘mini-publics’, where a small number of people chosen as representatives of an area’s population are invited to meet and have dialogue with policymakers, are not guaranteed to provide clear results that can easily inform major decisions. Nevertheless, by focusing on knowledge sharing, keeping people informed and allowing them to truly engage with a specific issue has been shown to deliver more effective and long-lasting behavioural change. Moreover, this can also help with future efforts.

‘I think deliberation can provoke uncertainty, but research suggests if you give people long enough to work through the issues, and it’s well facilitated, they often do start to consider the common good more than individual perspectives. They start to see the bigger picture,’ Moseley tells us. ‘And if people’s mindsets change, minor encouragement to make more changes will be more effective. If the belief is there to start with it is much easier to convince people to make more changes… and to tackle all environmental issues, we need to think holistically about the co-benefits that offers.’

Dive into the data

The idea that effective public messaging comes down to basic principles of human communication – gaining someone’s trust through openness, clarity, and taking time to talk and listen – is backed up by another behavioural expert. Ron Gutman is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of US health technology company Intrivo, a Stanford University adjunct professor, World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, and author of a bestselling TED book and talk on the power of smiling.  

Biography aside, he has extensive experience in public health campaigns, including successfully catalysing public participation in Covid-19 rapid testing with On/Go antigen home kits. Reinforcing what we have already heard from others, he is quick to point out the science of messaging is rooted in relationships and trust, which are based on clarity and transparency. However, he’s also keen to point out that ongoing analysis is crucial.

‘Once you start getting data and there are multiple active users, you need to start figuring out what works and what doesn’t. In the beginning, most people are probably not engaging. So, start looking for what works, what kind of communication, what time of day,’ he says, explaining it’s possible to develop a cycle with this approach – message, assessment, tweak, message. ‘That data is really valuable. You start understanding what works and what doesn’t. And I wouldn’t say budget should be an issue here – it’s more about motivation and having the rigour to approach things this way.’

Image: Alexander Shatov (Top) / Angèle Kamp (Middle) / Pawel Czerwinski (Bottom)


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