Posted by Tom Gable
Imagine that you have been selected and agreed to participate with other noted scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess climate science and policy options related to global climate change, with a major event set for late November 2010 in Cancun where the world would be watching.
You are pleased as a scientist but wondering if it’s worth the commitment. Coverage of the previous meeting in Copenhagen, the Conference of the Parties (COP 15), was mixed, at best. Recently, global media questioned the authenticity of the climate change scenarios, citing hacked emails from English scientists who appeared to be conspiring to keep opposing opinions and contrary studies out of peer reviewed journals. Although outside studies cleared the scientists of wrongdoing (but urged improved communications and openness with those on all sides of the issue), skepticism did not wane.
Now, you are four months away from COP 16, to be held from Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 in Cancun and you receive a letter from the IPCC advising you to keep your distance from the media. The directions: refer questions to group leaders or the Secretariat. Do you feel stupid – your expertise, education and credentials not valued? Is IPCC afraid of new issues surfacing? What are they hiding?
As reported by Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times, several scientists worried that the IPCC bunker mentality would “do little to build its credibility after a trying year of attacks by foes of restrictions on greenhouse gases and skeptics of climate science.”
Revkin opined: “But any instinct to pull back after being burned by the news process is mistaken, to my mind. As I explained to a roomful of researchers at the National Academy of Sciences last year, in a world of expanding communication options and shrinking specialized media, scientists and their institutions need to help foster clear and open communication more than ever. Clampdowns on press access almost always backfire.”
Revkin asked for input from Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the climate panel. His response, as reported by Revkin:
“My advice to the authors on responding to the media is only in respect of queries regarding the I.P.C.C. Some of them are new to the I.P.C.C., and we would not want them to provide uninformed responses or opinions. We now have in place a structure and a system in the I.P.C.C. for outreach and communications with the outside world. The I.P.C.C. authors are not employed by the I.P.C.C., and hence they are free to deal with the media on their own avocations and the organizations they are employed by. But they should desist at this stage on speaking on behalf of the I.P.C.C.”
Instead of a bunker mentality, adopt the tenets of authentic PR. In this model, research, preparation, fact-based communications and authentic engagement with the media (and all constituencies) can be the keys to success in building reputations and changing perceptions. For the IPCC, they have a wealth of talent they should be engaging in the communications battle. Scientists are used to presenting and answering tough questions, particularly when their work is subject to peer review. But working with the media requires different approaches, so investing time up front in education and training could make the engagements much more productive for the scientists, leading to more positive results in the media.
As the NYT and other coverage and comments in Discovery reported, the media from around the world will be seeking input from representatives from individual countries. Interest is high, particularly in third world countries where they feel they will be punished for the sins of the big polluters, such as China, India, the United States and other industrialized nations. They need energy to grow their economies. How will the global process translate to local impact?
As PR and news people know, readers and viewers want to know how decisions will impact them personally.
With some work, the IPCC organization turn its brilliant cadre of scientists into global ambassadors for the credibility and integrity of the IPCC process and advance local understanding. The scientists can be trained to easily transition away from IPCC issues and focus on individual areas of knowledge and expertise. They can refer to their own published works and those of their peers or other organizations as additional resources for the media.
With trained scientists, IPCC staff can serve as more than a news bureau and controller of messages. It can connect with the media in new ways by facilitating interviews with scientists, conducting interviews on key emerging topics on video and posting them to YouTube, holding a series of briefings with scientists from different regions of the world for select regional media and providing instant updates through Twitter, streaming videos and active blogging.
Instead of jumping into the bunker and getting defensive, the IPCC can use the Cancun meeting as an opportunity to open new lines of communication with the media and improve understanding of the issues and the nuances. Creating new media relationships with scientists from throughout the world can only help improve the overall quality of news coverage. Bottom line: an open, engaged program of pro-active media relations will have a positive impact on the long-term reputation of the IPCC, its people and the process.