While more Americans than ever before believe that climate change is a reality (73 percent, according to a recent survey, up from 63 percent just four years ago), the Trump administration has stepped up attacks on climate scientists, undermining what many perceive to be one of the most pressing global issues.
Three new College of Communication student-produced public service announcements (PSAs) underscore the urgency of the situation. Airing Saturday mornings nationwide this summer on 157 channels, under the umbrella of Litton Entertainment, a division of Hearst, the PSAs were created this spring by Hothouse Productions, a BU class that operates as a student-run, client-driven production company. In one PSA, a young girl and her father talk frankly about climate change, another is framed around a dating show focused on climate change attitudes, and the third shows a board meeting run by Mother Nature.
In “The Talk,” a young girl asks her dad what he thinks about climate change. Clearly uncomfortable with the conversation and not sure how to respond, he hesitates, and his daughter starts spouting off facts aimed at making him understand that action is imperative.
To create the PSA content, Hothouse partnered with BU’s own 51 Percent Project, a communications group whose mission is to give people the tools necessary to take tangible steps towards solving climate change and getting the word out to their community. Hothouse Productions faculty advisor Garland Waller (COM’80), a COM assistant professor of film and television, says the choice to dedicate the semester’s work to addressing climate change made sense because it is a hot-button issue for her students. “My experience with BU students is that they really care about the environment; this is their thing,” she says.
The 51 Percent Project is the brainchild of Sarah Finnie Robinson, a senior fellow at BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. One of the group’s driving principles is the concept of the trusted messenger: that people “believe people whom they trust, and they’re more likely to act based on the recommendation of that trusted other person.” “We have been relying on scientists to talk about climate change, but that isn’t what they are trained to do,” Robinson says. “Why aren’t we cultivating media communicators at all levels? Whether you are a corporate communications VP, a member of the mayor’s staff, or the leader of a Little League group—all of us, with our social channels, can be cultivated as a trusted messenger.” In this sense, she says, the Hothouse students became trusted messengers when they created their climate change PSAs.
In the PSA “The Love Planet,” a bachelorette chooses from contestants (and current public attitudes) Mr. Fix It, Mr. Let It Be, and Mr. I Don’t Care.
Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), departing COM dean, suggested that Robinson and Waller work together (Waller already had a working relationship with Meg LaVigne, Litton’s president of television). Once the semester began, Robinson visited the Hothouse class, asking them to complete the Yale Program on Climate Change Six Americas Super Short Survey (SASSY) to find where they fell in the range of public opinion. “Even those who consider themselves to be alarmed didn’t know what to do about it,” Robinson says. She also spoke to them about the environment and detailed some of the key communication points the PSAs should get across. The 14 students in the class came up with 16 story ideas, and of those, Robinson and LaVigne chose 3, which became the subjects of 3 PSA teams. A fourth team was assigned to make a behind-the-scenes documentary of the students’ work.
Each team member had a different role, ranging from producer to editor and videographer. Grad student Rachel Flood (COM) acted as the overall student executive producer, charged with facilitating communication between the Litton, 51 Percent Project, and Hothouse teams. She also had to ensure the three PSAs didn’t repeat information or facts.
“I had never done anything of this magnitude before, so there was a learning curve,” she acknowledges. “Because it was an academic environment, it was OK to make mistakes, and Professor Waller was there to help. It was hard, but very rewarding.”
Since the PSAs were going to be broadcast over TV stations, as opposed to being produced solely for a class, they had to go through a rigorous approval process. For instance, the TV networks’ Broadcast Standards and Practices had to approve all of the scripts, and Robinson was responsible for overseeing vigorous fact-checking. The PSAs also couldn’t be longer than 29.5 seconds and “had to deal with real-life issues,” Waller says. “It was stressful.”
In “Mother Nature,” different climate change phenomena, like hurricanes and wildfire, attend a meeting where they stress they are “acting out” to show that humans are harming the Earth.
Litton Entertainment was pleased with the finished results. LaVigne says her company is proud to support this unique student-created campaign, and that young people are “passionate about engaging and educating all of us about ways to make our world even better.”
While Flood admits to being in the “alarmed” category before her work with Hothouse, she says the project has made her more engaged and active on environmental issues. “It has given me internal motivation,” she says. “I learned it’s more than than doing little things like recycling, but rather going out into the community and joining in activism and voting people into positions of power that can enact change.”
This “Earth to People: The Making of PSAs” documentary takes us behind the scenes as COM’s Hothouse Productions class collaborates to create three PSAs that aim to induce the public to taking action to protect the climate.