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,

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

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Why avoiding logical fallacies is an everyday superpower

10 of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.

Photo credit: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
  • Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
  • Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less