Inside the U.N. Climate Change Conference

Focusing on communicating: What Worked, What Didn't

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David Hawksworth
David Hawksworth
As the U.N. Climate Change Conference draws to a close, many are beginning to reflect on the event from different perspectives. So for me, as a marketing professional, the entire COP15 conference is, in many ways, a story of communication. How effectively can the leaders of 192 countries communicate with each other to reach a fair and binding agreement to halt the effects of climate change? And, just as relevant, how did activists, brands and all the various organizations involved communicate their messages?

I was in Copenhagen last week, working on a project called ThisPlace09 to try to contribute to this effort to positively affect the outcome of the summit. Using Twitter, we crowd-sourced personal stories from people around the world about how climate change is affecting their lives and the places they love. U.K. artists and illustrators helped us to bring these stories to life in a suit-pocket-sized "Tweet book" that we gave to delegates -- the idea being to try to create a bit of much-needed empathy.

Most of our time was spent on getting the books to decision makers, so we must have walked almost every inch of the city and, in doing so, we spoke to a far broader range of people than I've met in years. Communication from brands, nongovernment organizations, grassroots activists and the conference organizers filled the city.

Tweet bookEnlarge
In Copenhagen, ThisPlace09 handed out Tweet books, featuring work by U.K. artists and designers and Tweets by people from around the world on how climate change is affecting them.

I would broadly categorize the communication into two categories. The first sought to highlight the scale and nature of the risks posed by climate change. We saw a really great example of this on our first day, at the World Wildlife Federation's ice bear exhibition. A man with an impossibly posh English accent explained how, over the course of the conference, the melting ice bear would reveal a bronze skeleton underneath, which would absorb heat and start to quicken the melting -- the same effect observed in melting icecaps. Though the imagery of ice and polar bears may be a little clich├ęd, it was an imaginative way of explaining an important point. And it was a little sad to see the bear a few days later as a skinny brown version of its former self.

When we tried to convince a waiter to take a pile of our Tweet books to give to dining delegates, he surprised us by saying that the conference communications were too overtly emotional. This was in reference to the film that was created for the opening event of the summit, one that has all the trappings of a Hollywood disaster movie. A small girl cowers in terror as the natural world around her tears and contorts, at one point swallowing her teddy bear. In the final few seconds of the film, her fading voice cries, "Please save the world." While the film highlights the potential consequences of climate change, it's more about fear than imagination or optimism. There is a risk that the true drama is lost to the dramatic special effects.

When walking around the city center, the most obvious example of brand involvement was the ads for Coca-Cola in support of Hopenhagen, a campaign put together by the International Advertising Association using top agency talent. I am not altogether sure how to place this one. It's very positive and optimistic -- Coca-Cola's stuff always is. However, it was heavily criticized by the activist types we spoke to, and while this might not be all that surprising, it was hard to find evidence of obvious substance beyond sponsorship to back it all up. This is despite the fact that a sustainability professional would be able to tell you that Coke is generally accepted as one of the leaders in the field.

But it wasn't just Coca-Cola that focused on mass awareness to the detriment of substance. On our third day, a group of teenagers stripped to their underwear outside the Bella center -- something to do with not leaving young people out in the cold. Points for effort, as it was freezing, but I get the distinct feeling that they decided to take their clothes off before they decided that it was about giving young people a voice at the conference. But guess what: The media loved it, and based on the array of reporters and cameras, the image, if not the message, traveled around the world.

The second type of communications around the conference was about trying to present a solution of some kind. Here I think the clear winner is the campaign, even though it has been criticized for relying on a number that most people don't understand (the safe amount of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere). Its objective was to make the number part of the negotiations. The prime minister of the Maldives made an impassioned speech structured around an Obama-esque rhythmic repetition of the numbers 3, 5, 0 and explained his commitment to making it part of the treaty. The 350 effort is a good example of how, if compelling enough, activism communication can directly and positively affect politics.

In contrast to the Coca-Cola ads, we came across a range of brand activity that actively demonstrated the role companies aimed to play in presenting a solution to climate change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, car brands owned this space. BMW offered test drives of its electric Mini, and Renault showcased its Better Place category of electric products and future innovations.

An activist idea that wore a bit thin after I had been in Copenhagen for more than a couple of days came from an organization demanding that rich countries "pay their climate debt." Group members all wore the same red suits, hats and Ray-Bans and had a number of choreographed chants and routines. I guess my issue (apart from hearing the chants hundreds of times) was the lack of any connection between what they were asking for and their overall presentation. But once again, the media loved them, probably because they fitted the brief of "find some wackiness going on outside the conference." This meant they were widely seen, but I think seldom heard.

As I reflect on the range of communications ideas we were exposed to during our time in Copenhagen, it's clear that we need both kinds; those that remind us what we have to lose, as well as those that focus on solutions. Where I think there is more of a distinction is in the methods used. For me, the most powerful ideas were those that created positive energy through appealing to the imagination rather than those that spurred negativity by inspiring fear or that were pure spectacle.

David Hawksworth is co-founder of Given London, a brand communications agency that brings together customer-led thinking and creativity of brand communications with the social and environmental knowledge of sustainability consulting. He previously worked as a communications strategist for Aegis Media Global.
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