STUDY: What Can Climate Communicators Learn from Gladwell's Tipping Point and Gore's WE Campaign?



Over the past decade, best-selling books such as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point have told compelling stories of how marketers and political consultants use "influentials," "mavens," "connectors," and "navigators" to sell products and win elections. In similar fashion, following the 2008 election, news articles proclaimed Barack Obama the first "online networking president" and speculated as to how Obama might be able to translate his millions of online campaign activists into a powerful governing force.

On climate change, with the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore launched The Climate Project, an initiative that has trained more than a 1,000 volunteers to present a version of Gore's slide show presentation to local organizations and groups.

Later in April 2008, Gore launched the WE campaign to recruit 10 million activists on climate change. The campaign's explicit goal is to create public opinion pressure on elected officials to adopt major policy actions. According to Cathy Zoi, WE campaign director, a central part of their strategy is to recruit "influentials" to be active on climate change, or as she defined them for Andrew Revkin at the New York Times: "...people who talk to five times as many people a day as the typical person, who derive self-esteem from having new information."

Yet is there research that can provide context and insight into the viability of these strategies for engaging the public on complex science debates such as climate change? More specifically, what are the prospects that the WE campaign or Obama's online activist model, if applied to climate change, might mobilize citizens on key policy decisions and/or shape their consumer and lifestyle choices, especially relative to energy efficiency and alternative energy? Perhaps even more importantly, how can principles from past research on influentials be translated and applied by a variety of organizations to effectively communicate with the public on a range of complex policy problems?

Those are some of the questions I wanted to figure out in a peer-reviewed paper just published at the journal Science Communication. My co-author is John Kotcher, a former graduate student now working as a communications officer at the National Academies. The article is part of a special issue at the journal focused on climate change communication, see importantly the introduction to the issue by co-editors Ed Maibach and Susanna Hornig Priest.

Below is the abstract to our paper. If you don't have an institutional subscription, please email me at nisbetmc AT gmail DOT com for a copy. I also wrote about the study when it was first accepted back in November. I will have more to say about other studies in the special issue upcoming, specifically one study that sheds light on the ongoing George Will affair.

This version was published on March 1, 2009
Science Communication, Vol. 30, No. 3, 328-354 (2009)
DOI: 10.1177/1075547008328797

A Two-Step Flow of Influence?
Opinion-Leader Campaigns on Climate Change
Matthew C. Nisbet

American University, Washington, DC, nisbet@american.edu

John E. Kotcher

National Academies, Washington, DC

In this article, we review concepts, measures, and strategies that can be applied to opinion-leader campaigns on climate change. These campaigns can be used to catalyze wider political engagement on the issue and to promote sustainable consumer choices and behaviors. From past research, we outline six relevant categories of self-designated opinion-leaders, detailing issues related to identification, recruitment, training, message development, and coordination. We additionally analyze as prominent initiatives Al Gore's The Climate Project and his more recent We campaign, which combines the recruitment of digital opinion-leaders with traditional media strategies. In evaluating digital opinion-leader campaigns, we conclude that there are likely to be significant trade-offs in comparison to face-to-face initiatives. The challenge for both scholars and practitioners is to understand under what conditions are digital opinion-leaders effective and in which ways can online interactions strengthen or build on real-world connections.

Key Words: opinion leaders • influentials • climate change • framing • digital networks

Why a federal judge ordered White House to restore Jim Acosta's press badge

A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration likely violated the reporter's Fifth Amendment rights when it stripped his press credentials earlier this month.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta (R) returns to the White House with CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist after Federal judge Timothy J. Kelly ordered the White House to reinstate his press pass November 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. CNN has filed a lawsuit against the White House after Acosta's press pass was revoked after a dispute involving a news conference last week. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Acosta will be allowed to return to the White House on Friday.
  • The judge described the ruling as narrow, and didn't rule one way or the other on violations of the First Amendment.
  • The case is still open, and the administration may choose to appeal the ruling.
Keep reading Show less

Russian reporters discover 101 'tortured' whales jammed in offshore pens

Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.

(VL.ru)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Russian news network discovers 101 black-market whales.
  • Orcas and belugas are seen crammed into tiny pens.
  • Marine parks continue to create a high-price demand for illegal captures.
Keep reading Show less

Water may be an inevitable result of the process that forms rocky planets

New research identifies an unexpected source for some of earth's water.

Surprising Science
  • A lot of Earth's water is asteroidal in origin, but some of it may come from dissolved solar nebula gas.
  • Our planet hides majority of its water inside: two oceans in the mantle and 4–5 in the core.
  • New reason to suspect that water is abundant throughout the universe.
Keep reading Show less