Commentary / Work by Donna Bowater

How Greta Thunberg became a case study in climate PR

From the politicians of every colour wanting a selfie with her to the journalists interrogating her possible influences and motivations, everyone has been talking about Greta Thunberg.

And as a result, everyone has been talking about her cause célèbre – the apocalyptic threat of climate change, and how it hangs most heavily over incoming Generation Z, which has responded with global school strikes.

But the real curiosity about Greta’s popularity and success isn’t how her Asperger syndrome has helped or hindered her, or whether she has been pushed centre-stage by her privileged parents.

It’s that she isn’t actually saying anything we haven’t already heard. 

So how did a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden get not only international cut-through but impact on an issue that so often draws lukewarm responses from media, politicians and the public?

Firstly, Greta is a lesson in how the medium really is the message.

When she told MPs there would be catastrophic consequences unless CO2 emissions were reduced by at least 50 per cent by 2030, she was simply repeating what climate scientists have been telling us for years.

The message hasn’t changed, but we are listening now because the voice has. 

Bleak climate models and predictions are made much starker by a schoolgirl whose future will be radically different from our own.

It’s a reminder that the spokesperson put forward – on climate change or poverty reduction or public health – need not only be the “expert” but also the very people whose lives and futures are at stake.

Secondly, by leading the climate school strikes and travelling to engagements by public transport, Greta is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. 

Behind any PR campaign is an ultimate call to action or behaviour change: what is the audience expected to think, feel or do as a result? 

Such a call to action can fall flat if there is not the opportunity for audiences to rise to it.

As a typically engaged member of Gen-Z, Greta has found a way not only to inspire a generation but to mobilise them effectively as well.

And this is an inspiration for more creative, active and dynamic PR campaigns that empower audiences to contribute to dialogues rather than simply witness them. 

This is particularly relevant for Greta’s generation – native digital users who are more engaged than ever and agitating to act upon their collective social responsibility.

Finally, in Greta the climate movement has a spokesperson who is confrontational and direct, no longer using the encouraging message of climate advocacy that “the time to act is now” and “every little helps”.

It’s a cue to practitioners, advocates and PRs across all areas of sustainable development to shift up a gear when it comes to language and tone around big issues. 

While not everyone can speak as freely or directly as Greta, discourses around global challenges need strong, decisive actions inspired by strong, decisive words.

Climate change has long been something of a PR puzzle, often too abstract, too enormous and too complicated to engage at the scale necessary to address it.

Greta Thunberg has offered some valuable insights in how to do this for environmental issues and beyond.

Originally published by PRWeek on May 24, 2019

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