When audience-based messaging backfires: from global warming to climate change

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A recent report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University demonstrates how the words we use to describe what we do and the issues we try to affect can sometimes get in the way of our work, even when we think we’re being really smart about it.

The center’s case study is about Americans’ reaction to two similar (but different) terms:  global warming and climate change. The study found that the two terms elicit different responses from Democrats and Republicans. From the report (emphasis mine):

“Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.”

“By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Translation: A few years ago, many environmentalists began using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because they thought it would help pull Republicans into the issue. It didn’t. But the shift appears to have turned off many Democrats, a group most environmentalists would consider their “base.”

I remember this linguistic shift and the debate it sparked within the environmental community. I also remember that the move toward climate change was supported by Frank Luntz, a brilliant scoundrel who helped Republicans change oil drilling and gambling to energy exploration and gaming. He changed the estate tax, which most Americans support, to the death tax, which most Americans hate. (You can read more here.)

He advised the Republican party that, because it was vulnerable on environmental issues and the voting public was woefully uneducated about the growing scientific certainty about global warming, it should: (1) use the term climate change because it’s less scary than global warming and (2) equate the public’s uncertainty about global warming (which was true) with scientific uncertainty about global warming (which was false). I know. Evil.

So, though Luntz and the environmental community were on different sides of this issue, they ended up cooperating to redefine a global issue to suit the needs of one segment of the message market.

Many groups agonize about the words they use and often try to so carefully parse their messaging for different audiences that the way they describe themselves to one audience is sometimes unrecognizable from how they describe themselves to another. Along the way, they can lose sight of their core values and their core constituents.

I strongly believe in audience-focused language. But your language shouldn’t vary so dramatically that your identity gets muddled. In Texas, we often say that you should “dance with who brung you.” That applies to words, as well. If you’re going to abandon the words, imagery and rhetoric that have helped you grow and inspire your base, be cautious. It doesn’t always go as planned.


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Vision and Mission: What you want and what you do

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I find it ironic that the communication field has such a hard time locking in firm definitions for words we use to help clients. Words like goals, objectives, strategies and tactics mean different things to different people.

One person’s strategy is another person’s tactic.

I came across this recently when helping a great Austin group refine its vision and mission. I wanted to show them some examples, and I found Craig Van Korlaar’s great site, which includes articles about good vision and mission statements for large, well-known organizations. Great examples. Check them out. (Another collection of non-profit mission statements is missionstatements.com, but I’m not sure of the criteria used for the list.)

Yet it seems that even these groups can’t agree on a firm difference between vision and mission. As I know them:

a vision statement articulates how an organization would define a perfect world (or city or community), within the context of what they do, and

a mission statement articulates the organization’s reason for existing (it explains what the group does quite literally).

So a food bank in Smith County might say:

Our vision is a community where no one ever goes hungry.

Our mission is to provide food to needy families in Smith County.

One of my favorite organizations is the American Red Cross. In addition to being a great cause, the organization’s messaging and ads are so good.

But look at its vision.

The American Red Cross, through its strong network of volunteers, donors and partners, is always there in times of need. We aspire to turn compassion into action so that:

…all people affected by disaster across the country and around the world receive care, shelter and hope;

…our communities are ready and prepared for disasters;

…everyone in our country has access to safe, lifesaving blood and blood products;

…all members of our armed services and their families find support and comfort whenever needed; and

…in an emergency, there are always trained individuals nearby, ready to use their Red Cross skills to save lives.

First, it’s very well written and clearly thought out. But it’s also a very long and complicated vision. And I’d argue that the two sentences (before all the ellipses) are actually part of the mission.

Further, I’d argue that its vision is simpler: A world that is prepared for disaster before it strikes and provides professional and compassionate help when it does.

Its mission statement, however, is nearly perfect.

The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

The American Red Cross does a lot of things (see ellipses). But the sentence above wraps all of those activities, goals and programs up into a simple statement that explains its reason for being:  we prevent and alleviate human suffering.

Remember, your vision and mission should explain what you want and what you do. But they shouldn’t be complicated and they shouldn’t list EVERYTHING.

If you have examples of really good (or really bad) vision or mission statements, send them my way.

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