The Do’s and Don’ts of Communicating on the Environment

 In Blog
Emily P. Diamond, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor 
Communication + Marine Affairs
University of Rhode Island
Environmental Studies
Emily P. Diamond, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Communication + Marine Affairs
University of Rhode Island

It seems like everyone from your local takeout restaurant to large multinational brands seem to be talking about environmental protection. We are entering an age of newfound awareness of and concern about various environmental issues – from plastic straws to climate change. Environmental issues, which have traditionally ranked among the lowest priority issues in America, are making their way into people’s every day consciousness. Sixty-five percent of Americans now believe that the environment should take priority over economic growth, more than any other time in nearly 20 years. 

For those concerned about the environment, continuing and expanding this awareness among the public is a high priority. Communication professionals are at the front lines of these efforts – from developing new marketing campaigns for re-usable cutlery, to telling the public about a company’s shifting focus from oil and gas to renewable energy. 

So, how should we be talking about environmental issues? Here are a few tips – backed up by science – about how to best engage people in environmental protection. 

  • DO adapt messages to your audience. People react differently to environmental messages, especially on polarizing topics like climate change. Audiences that are already highly engaged on environmental issues may be ready to receive messages with primarily environmental motivations. But for audiences who are new to or opposed to what you are communicating, connect it to something they care deeply about, such as children, health, or local economies. 
  • DON’T be “doom and gloom”. While many environmental threats may seem existential, research has shown that messages portraying doomsday scenarios can cause people to shut down. The human brain is not easily able to process situations that seem insurmountable, and people react negatively when they feel like they are being blamed for environmental problems. 
  • DO make it local. Often, environmental issues can seem distant – either because the effects are being felt by people far away will mainly occur in the future. Research finds that environmental communication is most effective when it relates a bigger issue to how people will experience it locally. 
  • DON’T flood people with complex science. Most people don’t have the time or desire to understand the details of the science behind issues like climate change or chemical pollution. Presenting messages with complex scientific information will often lead to tune-out, or worse, to resentment towards science itself. Keep scientific information high-level and basic, and link people to where they can find more detailed support for any scientific claims. 

And most important:  DO talk about it! The more that people see and hear different sources talking about environmental protection, the more it will penetrate all our consciousness. Communication is key. Write. Speak. Support. And, let your actions back up your communication.

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