What is your message? Who do you address it to? In order to match your resources and communication channels to your goals, decide with your team which directions in pro-ecological communication are your priorities. Is it creating a community around this issue and shaping attitudes (“this is our common cause, we are all in it together”), is it a call to action (“there is no time to waste”), or building a green brand (“as an institution, we want to be an environmentally friendly place”). Each of these goals requires slightly different forms of communication, but they all support each other while creating a holistic message. You can mix and match directions, but it is advisable to focus on one or two of them to start with. Consider which main messages on environmental action should predominate in your overall communication strategy.
Community building , attitude shaping. Highlighting how individual actions affect the environment – and that it concerns all of us – can make recipients relate to your messages and understand that their daily choices matter. Concrete examples of activities can embolden and inspire them. Therefore, emphasise the importance of small steps – even if they seem to be insignificant from the perspective of the whole organisation (e.g. creating furniture from recycled materials, giving up plastic pockets for documents, recycling old materials, installing aerators on taps). If some systemic change has been introduced in your organisation (e.g. the cafe has completely changed its menu to vegan; the institution has completely abandoned plastic packaging; you have created a community garden with your neighbours; your institution changed its printing policy), bear in mind that systematic changes and small steps go hand in hand and support each other. Create a space in the organisation’s programme to meet with the audience around these threads, discuss, engage in the topic and learn more together.
Call to action, common cause, i.e. activist strategy. This path uses more direct messages and a language of activism, emphasising the agency of individuals and groups, as well as their shared responsibility. The dynamics of the discussion are shaped by the scarcity of time: there is little time left to prevent the irreversible consequences of the climate disaster, so we are talking about an issue that requires immediate action. However, it is important not to use the language of ‘catastrophe’ all the time – different forms of communication may reach different groups. Examples from your organisation can be a sign that you can and must act. This appeal is addressed to both the public and other cultural organisations. In industry discussions, cultural practitioners raise topics related to the internal greening of the cultural sector, which are not ‘at the front’ of climate discussions (e.g. transparent remuneration, simplification of cultural procedures, etc.). Discussions with cultural organisers emphasise the need for joint action, introducing systemic changes and the role that cultural organisers can play.
Building a green brand, i.e. marketing strategy. It concentrates on communicating the changes introduced to shape attitudes and, at the same time, strengthen the brand of the organisation as an environmentally friendly one. Points of interest include internal changes, showing the audience what and how can be done and that we are doing it – we are a good example. However, following this path, be mindful not to create an idealised image of reality. Your messages should show that greening of a cultural organisation is a complex process by which we all learn, rather than being a marketing competition.
Danger of greenwashing. The deceptive practice of greenwashing, also known as ‘green sheen’, concerns mostly the sector of production and commerce. Ecoproducts are in high demand and some companies, hoping to attract new customers, create the impression of being ‘green’ to increase profits from sales. Products with ‘bio’, ‘organic’, ‘eco’ labels appear on the market even though they do not comply with any ecological standards. It is worth being aware of this phenomenon and steering clear of similar practices. ‘Exaggerated’ messages that may be misleading or create a false view of the situation may be perceived as ‘eco-lies’ (e.g. a promotional strap line “we are more ecological than other cultural institutions” unsupported by data and specific examples). Sometimes the fear of greenwashing keeps us from communicating our efforts towards sustainability. We are uncertain whether we are doing something sufficiently well to mention it and whether it is of an appropriate scale to be a good example. However, the point is to talk about it! – but in a transparent and truthful manner.
If you are faced with similar dilemmas, ask yourself – is your action part of larger changes? Do you plan to improve what you have already done? If so, talk about it widely. However, try to avoid excessively vague statements; instead of slogans, such as “we are an eco-friendly cultural institution”, choose specific examples – “we reduce plastic”, “we collect rainwater”, “we recycle architecture from previous exhibitions”, “we run an ecological education programme for children” etc.
Ethics of advertising, i.e. not abusing the recipients’ trust, not taking advantage of their inexperience or ignorance. This is also a matter of the consistency of our content and the values which particular platforms or media subscribe to. We should cooperate with media which are credible and act ethically.
How to talk?
How to talk about climate? Language is important – it shapes awareness and influences the character of public debate. For this reason, it is increasingly postulated to stop referring to the climate crisis in ‘soft’ terms. As the first medium in the world, the question of ‘radicalising’ the language was raised by The Guardian in 2019. In Poland, a similar solution was adopted by Radio TOK FM, and many others followed. Neutral terms have been replaced with phrases emphasising the urgency of the situation and the need to act. ‘Climate change’ has been replaced with ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate breakdown’ and ‘climate catastrophe’; ‘environmental changes’ – with ‘environmental crisis’ or ‘ecological crisis; ‘global warming’ – with ‘global heating’; ‘climate sceptic’ – with ‘climate science denier’. Culture for Climate subscribes to this linguistic strategy and also clearly states: This is a climate and ecological emergency.
> Read more about it in Tomasz Markiewka’s article: Mówienie o „katastrofie klimatycznej” to nie alarmizm, lecz wyraz odpowiedzialności, [Talking about ‘climate catastrophe’ is not alarmism but an expression of responsibility] source: OKO.press
How to talk about climate crisis? The School of Ecopoetics affiliated with the Reportage Institute in Warsaw is working on a new proposal of conceptualising the climate crisis as a crisis of the imagination. It points out that there is presently no narrative which, on the one hand, would reflect the seriousness of the situation, and, on the other hand, avoid catastrophic language which is threatening and using moral blackmail. Hence the work on creating a completely new narrative on the climate crisis, which would be based on three pillars: knowledge, commitment and a positive vision of the future.
> Read Manifest Szkoły Ekopoetyki, [The Manifesto of the School of Ecopoetics] source: Reportage Institute [Instytut Reportażu]
Similar voices can be heard in statements such as: the climate crisis is too complex to talk about clearly and reach the uninvolved, the climate crisis is too abstract to talk about in a personal manner, the climate crisis is denied by many as a real fact, so it is difficult to even start a conversation.
Below you will find some communication tips which can help your pro-ecological message reach the unconvinced as well.
1. Personalisation. The problems related to the climate crisis are often referred to as distant, happening on a global scale (implicitly ‘not here’), affecting the oceans and glaciers. In order for this story to become a matter close to me, it requires a different narrative – one that will show the connection of the climate crisis with my immediate surroundings (local drought, water supply interruptions, extreme weather breakdowns). This story does not instruct or rebuke me, but it gives me space for doubts and questions that I have within myself. Personalisation can make this topic relevant to me, affecting my everyday life.
Read more: Adam Levy: Making Climate Change Personal, source: Biennale Warszawa
2. Real life examples instead of data and statistics. Do not use charts or complicated statistics that say little to a person outside the industry. What does 50 g of CO2 really mean? 10,000 tonnes of coal – is it a lot or a little? Make sure you turn data and facts into captivating stories. Use understandable references – ‘it’s like a flight to Europe’, “it’s like boiling a cup of water” etc.
3. Simplifying the language. Not everyone is an expert at using specialist terms. Make sure you do not overuse specialist jargon when discussing the climate crisis, as it can discourage others from becoming acquainted with this topic due to its linguistic inaccessibility.
4. Admit uncertainty and lack of knowledge – after all, nobody knows the future. We can talk about it only on the basis of available data and current diagnoses. Therefore, focus on what is known now and on what can be done about it.
5. Invite people who deny climate science to participate in a discussion – try to understand their doubts, identify their sources, and answer them. Do not adopt an ‘ex cathedra’ attitude.
6. With the visual narrative of the climate crisis full of images of endless landfills, recycling a can may seem irrelevant. Therefore, present specific options for action, remind everyone about specific causes of the climate crisis.
7. Leave everyone with a positive message, emphasise that each and every one of us can contribute to individual, local and global benefits.
8. Different messages reach different people. It is not always necessary to speak about a catastrophe using catastrophic language. Some people would benefit from becoming frightened, others from being amused. Many campaigns urge us to change our bad habits by evoking scary images. For contrast, it is worth introducing a little lightness and pleasure in promoting pro-ecological attitudes.
> Piano Stairs was a much heralded campaign from a decade ago, which promoted attitude change drawing on the theory of play. Its aim was to encourage underground passengers to use stairs rather than escalators. Stairs were turned into a sound installation in which every step became a key making a different sound. See: Piano Stairs. From Movement to Mozart, source: Design of the World
> The fanSHEN theatre, promoting its theatrical production, invited viewers to exercise on special machines in gyms, which stored the energy thus generated. The batteries charged in this way were used to power theatrical performances, and the people who exercised received discounts on tickets, the amount of which depended on the amount of energy produced. See: Powering Theatre, Conceptualising Energy, source: Pedalling Power
Eco-tab on your organisation’s website. Its content can vary greatly. You can inform about various areas of pro-ecological activities undertaken by you, refer to a selected aspect defining the ecological profile of your institution, or finally, present the overall ecological strategy of your organisation. There are many possibilities. The tab should be developed as the next steps are gradually implemented. It will be a signal for cultural participants that our organisation is serious about ecology.
Check examples of various eco-tabs on the websites of various cultural institutions and organisations:
> Zamek for Climate, ZAMEK Culture Centre in Poznań
> Służew Cultural Centre, Warsaw
> Arcola Theatre, London