#53) THE POWER OF POSITIVITY: Union of Concerned Scientists, our Kerry Campaign commercial of 2004, and the need for Total Tactics
July 15th, 2010
TOTAL TACTICS: Last Sunday the Union of Concerned Scientists launched this excellent, very positive communications campaign with ads in major newspapers. These ads aren’t meant for scientists or bloggers who read 25 articles about climate science a day. They’re meant for members of the general public who have no interest in ever looking at a graph, even if it is famous.
In 2005 I did a short video with environmental writing superstar Mark Dowie (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark book “Losing Ground: American environmentalism at the close of the twentieth century”). He cited the famous grassroots organizer Saul Alinsky (a name that’s coming up a lot these days among the attackers of Obama who call him a socialist) who coined the term “Total Tactics.” It refers to the need for ALL levels of organization when waging a campaign. In the video Mark illustrated the term by citing the civil rights movement.
Similar to civil rights, the issue of global warming has pretty much turned into a movement, and as such, it also needs to make use of the Total Tactics way of thinking. What that means is all levels and approaches to the issue are needed. The large organizations with their armies of high paid lawyers are needed to bring suits against offenders, while the grassroots groups who know how to build trust in small communities are equally important.
Similarly, both negative communications (such as being able to aggressively discredit sources of disinformation) and positive communications (building a favorable public opinion) are needed. In the case of global warming, there is a need for hard hitting climate bloggers who can undercut the voices of opposition, AND there’s a need for larger scale public relations that will help build public trust and support for the profession of climate science.
THE NEED FOR GOOD PUBLIC RELATIONS
So let’s talk about this term “p.r.” a little bit. In May, Erin Biba wrote this excellent editorial in Wired Magazine titled, “Science Needs to Step Up it’s P.R. Game.” It was following on the heels of Sharon Begley’s equally biting essay in Newsweek, “Their Own Worst Enemies: Why Scientists are Losing the P.R. Game.” As both of these writers point out, public relations is essential to any profession.
A major part of public relations is making sure the public knows about the good things you’ve done. For example, when the day comes that you show up at the pearly gates of heaven and St. Peter makes his decision, if you’re a humble scientist, you may run the risk of getting sent to hell, simply because St. Pete is busy and you didn’t speak up. But if you’ve hired a good publicist, that person will have made certain that the man at the gate knows all about the work you did on earth curing cancer, and without even opening your mouth you’ll get a warm reception.
THAT is what much of p.r. is about — making certain people know about the good things you did. And realizing that in the absence of such knowledge, people will assume that you’ve never done anything worthwhile because that is just how people are.
LARGE ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS NEED GOOD PUBLICISTS
A scientist friend of mine was on the board of a major environmental group. He was constantly bemoaning the fact that the organization does amazing work overseas, but because their communications people are so inept, no one ever hears about it.
It’s a serious problem. It’s also a tacky problem — it’s basically the idea that as you’re walking a little old lady across the street, you need to have a professional publicist calling everyone’s attention by shouting, “Hey, everybody, look at what’s happening here — this guy is doing a good deed!” It’s a disgusting thought, but that’s how our society works.
Perception IS reality. Your goal is not to manipulate perception in dishonest ways. It’s only to make certain that it matches, one hundred percent, what the reality is. If you have a profession that is characterized almost entirely by honest people who value their integrity so highly that they are willing to investigate themselves simply because their opponents have managed to propagate groundless charges in the mass media (yes, I’m talking about the ENTIRE ClimateGate episode), then your profession deserves to have a good public image.
And if you have a profession that is filled with people who are driven not by their desire to live in the biggest McMansion on the block, but rather by the same curiosity that caused them to stare at the insects and flowers during little league baseball games or wallow in the mud as a kid or gaze at the stars in high school … well, then your profession has a right to project those images to the general public.
This is what is at the core of the print ads being published by the folks at Union of Concerned Scientists. The artwork is excellent. The ads very cool — very simple. And it’s an exercise in propagating the truth. I know this. I was a scientist for 20 years. Virtually every scientist I ever got to know had this driving, passionate, often self-less desire to learn, regardless of the economics. When I think of those people, then I think of the attacks against the credibility of research scientists being propagated these days, it really disgusts me and makes me wish there were a billion dollars (literally) to put behind this U.C.S. campaign because it is projecting the truth.
POSITIVE MESSAGING TAKES A LOT OF MUSCLE (BUT IS CRUCIAL)
As any political campaigner will tell you, negative advertising can be incredibly powerful. Just ask Michael Dukakis. I had a close friend who was a member of the top staff of his presidential campaign in 1988. I remember the day when she said, “We’ve got it — we’ve figured it out — we don’t have the money to buy the big ads that Bush is going to do, but we have lots of people so we’re going to win this election at the grassroots level by knocking on doors across America.”
Famous last words.
Unfortunately, they learned the hard way that a zillion door knocks can’t hold a candle to one Willie Horton negative campaign commercial. Dukakis was a good guy, but he got his clock cleaned.
In 2004, when another good guy (= loser) was running for President, we managed to scratch together a few bucks here in Los Angeles and with the help of a whole lot of volunteer crew (including the most amazing big time cameraman I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with who came with a crew of 20 guys and two trucks all donated) we shot this simple environmental commercial for John Kerry. It was a very targeted piece, sponsored by Environment 2004, that was run in regions of Wisconsin and a few other states where mercury contamination of local waters was a significant issue.
OUR 2004 KERRY COMMERCIAL: In the voiceover (which is so rough it’s hard to recognize — he was at the end of a long voiceover session for the animated movie “Cars”) was the late Paul Newman (like everyone, he did it for free to help out Kerry). Charles Durning (the fisherman) was wonderful — what an a-mazing guy — during a break I chatted with him about his experiences in World War II — he was among the first troops who landed on Omaha Beach on D-day, was wounded, then ended up at the Battle of the Bulge where he was one of the only survivors of the Malmedy Massacre (he said he hid behind a tree). I wanted to cancel the shoot and just spend the day hearing his stories. He’s one of the last of Tom Brokaw’s, “The Greatest Generation.”
It was a cute spot that was largely positive in tone — nothing about George W. Bush destroying nature — just the positive message that Kerry was strong on the environment. In looking at it 6 years later I really like it, but … well, the rest was history for Kerry. In the end, he simply didn’t have enough “Total Tactics,” especially when the Swift Boat Veterans finally attacked.