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Conversation with David Fenton

David Fenton: “We need a mobilized and activated mass movement to stop the fossil fuel industry, we're not going to create a mass movement using obscure slogans.”

David Fenton, named “one of the 100 most influential P.R. people” by PR Week and “the Robin Hood of public relations” by The National Journal, founded Fenton in 1982 to create communications campaigns for the environment, public health and human rights. For more than five decades he has pioneered the use of PR, social media and advertising techniques for social change. Fenton started his career as a photojournalist in the late 1960s – his book Shots: An American Photographer’s Journal was published in 2005. 

He was formerly director of public relations at Rolling Stone magazine and co-producer of the No-Nukes concerts in 1979 at Madison Square Garden with Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and other artists. He has also helped create JStreet, Climate Nexus, the Death Penalty Information Center, and Families for a Future. He sold Fenton a few years ago to work on climate change full time.

I reached out to David Fenton to get his perspective on the climate movement’s blindspots and the conversation did not disappoint !

Frederic Guarino: You’re coming out with a book on your 50 years in progressive PR and progressive politics and we just talked about your post on “language to win on climate change” entry on your davidfentonactivist.com blog. You hit it right out of the park with pollution, protecting public health and polluters should pay and “we save money”. Why are we unable to articulate things in such simple terms in the discourse ?  

David Fenton: I would say that George Lakoff, the great linguist from UC Berkeley has a very clear explanation of what this problem is: people who study science, humanities and the law have this false idea that brilliant ideas magically communicate themselves. Lakoff calls it the enlightenment fallacy. People that go to business school know this is not true, that you have to sell ideas and they learn marketing and cognitive science and they use it to advance their careers, to sell products and services. They learn how the brain actually works, which is through the repetition of very simple messages over and over and over and over again now. People who study Sciences, Humanities and the law don’t like simplicity, they get ahead by promulgating complexity and separation and distinction for the particular minutia of their field and they hate repeating themselves.

The thing about the word pollution is that it activates a universal mental frame everybody understands and is universally disliked

We’re kind of wired in the climate and scientific community against what works, this is the problem. We are in a bubble thinking that everybody magically knows and finds out what we do just because we think. I call it the telepathic theory of communications. People are in a bubble in this movement and think everybody’s hearing them but they’re using language and imagery that is pretty much designed to keep the movement small. There’s this whole other problem: people do not know terms like “emissions” “Net Zero” “carbon”, the public doesn’t know what those things are. They do know what pollution is. The metaphor and visual imagery that is proven to work best is to say: by burning oil, coal and gas we have put a blanket of pollution around the Earth that is trapping heat that used to go back out to space. This trapped heat energy is of course making storms and droughts stronger and melting the ice and flooding our cities. THAT is a real simple conception for people. 

The thing about the word pollution is that it activates a universal mental frame everybody understands and is universally disliked. When you use words like Net Zero and carbon emissions you’re not activating anything people understand so we have to learn to think this way and we need to simplify and repeat our Communications and the other thing we need to do is to unify our potential echo chamber you know on the right you’ll notice they all have the same talking points and they all repeated in unison because they understand that’s how the brain changes repetition of simple messages now our potential Echo chamber I would say is the Tower of Babel everybody talks about it differently there’s no Unity whatsoever so we’re not creating mental circuitry in peoples to help them understand what we are doing to the Earth if the scientific and NGO and government communities would unify their language and imagery we’d have much more public understanding.

Simplification is not negating the truth, it’s enabling it. 

Some people accuse me of being manipulative and my answer to that is: no that’s unmanipulating ! People have been manipulated and lied to, so we need to get them the truth and if to get them the truth we have to simplify the truth while retaining its essence of being true, then let’s do that. Simplification is not negating the truth, it’s enabling it. We have this other problem, which is that increasingly the slogan of the climate movement is “Climate Justice” and I can tell you from the data almost nobody knows what that means you know when you say the word justice most people think of police and courts what does that have to do with the climate so what I tell people and this is controversial a lot of people don’t like to hear this is if you want climate Justice which of course we do don’t call it that because it’s not going to rally people. We need a mobilized activated mass movement to stop the fossil fuel industry. We’re not going to create a mass movement using obscure slogans that doesn’t happen 

Frederic Guarino: Jane Fonda is one of the examples of how you can simplify and still retain the essence: the work that she did to outlaw oil extraction close to people’s dwellings in California, what I don’t understand is why she can’t get that front and center wider and I think it goes back to what you said regarding the echo chamber.

David Fenton: The professional Environmental NGOs are very large, they have lots of money and big staffs and they do some important policy and legal work, but they spend almost none of their resources reaching the public outside their memberships. They actually have enough money to transform the political will in this situation but most of the money and the climate movement goes to what I call the supply of policy: reports, studies, conferences, meetings and opening more offices. We don’t lack a supply of policy, we pretty much know what we need to do, we lack demand. To me the spending is really not prioritized properly, we have all this great policy now let’s spend money teaching the public what they face, because I am quite confident when the public understands that a few very greedy people in the fossil fuel industry are threatening their prosperity, health, safety, security and future and the economy, they’re not just going to let them do it.

The weather will eventually wake everybody up it, the numbers are low because there’s not enough of a conceptual framework. only a fraction of Americans know that all the climate scientists agree we’re heating the Earth, most people still think there’s enormous disagreement about that. You have to ask yourself, why is that ? The predominant reason is the PR strategy of the oil coal and gas companies to confuse people – Merchants of Doubt was written about this by the great sociologist Naomi Oreskes –  doubt is their product, because if people don’t think the scientists agree they’re not going to feel that there needs to be action. I don’t just blame the fossil fuel industry, from a tough love point of view we have to blame ourselves too, because we have never mounted an effective campaign at the scale necessary to reach the public to tell them: yes, all the scientists agree and  the reason is not that we can’t afford it, our community is actually quite wealthy.

Frederic Guarino: You were around during the fights that gave us the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, we also signed the Montreal Protocol of 1987 which rid ourselves of CFCs. What are we missing to get back to those moments ?

David Fenton: What’s missing ? Well there’s not one thing missing. In the early 70s late 60s the movement was very focused on mass awareness and reaching the public and using popular culture to do that, which people do not do very much today. It was not a kind of inbred small professional group working on law and policy, it was a bunch of agitators and activists focused on mass persuasion and that created huge political momentum. Back then we had a much simpler media landscape, so this is part of the reason, in the United States there were only three television networks and everybody had the same experience. On the first Earth Day (1970) they buried a car that was the symbolic act and everybody in the country saw that, and the rivers were polluted and lit on fire everybody saw it. Now because we have a much more fragmented media landscape it’s a much more challenging thing to reach a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Unfortunately it it it doesn’t just take creativity and virality, it takes money ! It’s not just the Russians that can buy ads on Facebook to change American public opinion, activists can do that too and it costs much less than you may think. The problem is that our community looks down on that kind of work as selling manipulative stuff, we need to get over that.

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