Climate Communications 101: the Trusted Messenger

An entire climate communications strategy flows from this one simple principle: People believe people whom they trust, and they’re more likely to act based on the recommendation of that influential other person. Communications experts call this the Trusted Messenger principle, and it’s proven especially effective on the topic of climate change.

Friends, family, and co-workers are powerful agents of the Trusted Messenger principle. “On the issue of climate change, people typically trust most the people they know the best – their family members, friends, and co-workers,” says Ed Maibach, the founding director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. His “Six Americas” collaborator, Tony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, agrees: “Most of us are really affected by the people in our own lives. It’s our kids. It’s our friends.” And, “We need to talk about it.”

Researchers have identified top trusted influencers to be scientists, primary-care physicians and other health-care professionals, faith leaders, TV meteorologists, staff at zoos, aquariums, museums, and nature centers, university leaders, and farmers. These networks are already organized and training their members to communicate effectively about climate change, and to make progress on resilience and adaptation solutions.

Importantly — because they control the $ tens of trillions+ that must shift to a low-carbon global economy — investors and corporations are also beginning to lead on climate, although arguably not at the pace required. They, too, are organized: Ceres, the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFDs), Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), and Science-Based Targets, which is a collaboration between the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and one of the We Mean Business Coalition commitments. (More coming on this in a post soon.)

To this established list of Trusted Messengers, I’d add first responders, celebrities, rockstars, movie stars, business leaders, top athletes, best-selling authors, team captains, your favorite news anchors and commentators, and late-night comedians.

The potential for climate engagement is huge. For example, more people (181 million) visit American zoos and aquariums each year than all major-league sports events combined. Cultural institutions are seen as politically agnostic, adding to their appeal as places to learn and have fun, instead of getting into a stressful confrontation.

Every group of people has its stars, its popular natural leaders. 16-year old Greta Thunberg has disarmed the world with her no-nonsense-yet-girlish perspicacity. Your college basketball MVP can be as powerful among his fans as Cardi B (with 40 million Instagram followers) is for hers. The rest of us can encourage these Trusted Messengers to deliver simple messages about climate change to their followers, in their own way, and stick to it.

Once you begin thinking about this, you’ll see that Trusted Messengers are everywhere: your neighborhood association steering committee, leading the most popular workout class at your gym, running the show at that hot yoga studio, organizing a bike race or tennis tournament, figuring out a tricky family situation, leading a food drive. Popular and respected folks who step up and get stuff done – and make friends along the way: these are the Trusted Messengers in your life.

How to become a Trusted Messenger yourself?

  • The first, most important step is to recognize the potential you have to engage your closest friends and associates on this topic.
  • The second is to exercise that potential in ways that are natural for you.
  • And the third is to repeat the process, again and again.

As Trusted Messengers, we can use all the excellent communications principles that our experts have identified: Be informed. Keep it simple. Don’t be preachy. Most of all, begin. When it comes to climate change, time is not our friend.

ISE Non-Resident Senior Fellow Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding director of The 51 Percent Project, is an investor in large-scale climate solutions and founding partner of WeSpire, a Boston tech firm that powers sustainability programs at F500 corporations. She is active on the Climate Task Force for Boston Harbor Now.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.