In a world where a big communications budget can pair two otherwise comically oxymoronic words in our minds—think “clean” and “coal”—it would be ill-advised to say that words don’t matter. It would be even worse to assert that choosing the most effective words to convey smart ideas is somehow dishonest.

But that’s basically what Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental communications, told the New York Times this week about EcoAmerica’s prematurely leaked research-based talking points intended for climate policy advocates such as government officials and environmental leaders. As he put it, social change makers shouldn’t stoop to the level of marketing or advertising tactics: “You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell that. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”

You can call it manipulation, but if we left strategic wordsmithing like this only to lobbyists for coal and oil interests, we’d be doing the public a major disservice. Anyway, Brulle’s choice of a loaded word like “manipulation” in the first place—when I imagine he’s referring to might also be called “persuasion” or “consensus-building” (or just communicating)—itself reveals the difference just one word can make. Words matter. And, for most of us working toward climate solutions, words are some of the most important tools we’ve got. Just as a brain surgeon doesn’t go for a rusty scalpel, we like to choose our words wisely—sometimes even paying money to figure out which ones are best for the job. EcoAmerica has been doing just that, conducting extensive polling and focus group research for the last several years to find ways to frame environmental issues and so build public support for climate change legislation.

It’s about making climate messages more clear, less wonky, and most effective at conveying the core values underlying the policies.

  • I’ll wait for EcoAmerica’s official report. What has been leaked so far is incomplete, but from what I’ve seen, their findings reinforce strategies that Sightline has been promoting for some time: focus on solutions rather than gloom and doom; avoid technical or number-heavy talk about carbon-dioxide but rather focus on the need to stop overloading the atmosphere; and highlight the enormous opportunities of moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.

    One finding by EcoAmerica answers a question I’m asked frequently by climate advocates in the Northwest: Which is better “global warming” or “climate change?” I never had a definitive answer. Most research showed the terms were interchangeable and worked differently depending on the audience. EcoAmerica found that the term global warming is far more polarizing. According to the Times report, “The term [global warming] turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes.”

    So, if Professor Brulle is listening—or any other strategic communication cynics out there—here’s just another example of how a simple word or phrase either turns people away or invites them into the conversation. When good policy relies on public support, maybe it’s okay to pay attention not just to what we say, but to how we say it.