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Getting out of the Disaster Frame – An Interview with Scott Miller

Scott - HS WebPeople believe what they believe. Your job as a communicator is to connect your issue to what your audiences already believes and values.

As the water levels at Mead and Powell drop by the day, the sophistication and volume of Colorado Basin news coverage continues to rise.

With more audiences coming to understand the magnitude of the water security crisis, how do utilities and advocates more effectively communicate climate change adaptation messages and strategies?

In this interview we examine this question with Scott Miller, CEO of Resource Media. Miller, a long time observer of media coverage counsels investment in deeper, more personal stories that can illuminate a path out of the “extreme weather” frame, and into a public conversation about the hard choices that need to be made.


You’ve been tracking climate change coverage for a long time. How are you seeing the media coverage of climate change and western water shift over the past year?

There is not a lot of appetite for the debate over “if” climate change is happening anymore. That’s a significant shift. And all things are possible once you get beyond that story frame.

When it comes to water, though, I don’t think that the connection is being made between water as the face of climate change and the large percentage of climate change coverage that is focused on extreme weather. There are places where coverage has shifted – around the California drought for example. There was no way around it this time because the Governor and everyone else made it about climate change, and sharp elbows are coming out about water supply.

But these connections aren’t being made in a way that gets us to more solution-oriented stories and policies. People are not thinking, “I won’t get burned down by fire personally, but my water supply is in danger.” And you see this in the coverage of the massive fires in north-central Washington this summer. The coverage of those big fires didn’t look much different from how I covered it as a reporter 20 years ago and that’s a problem.

So the landscape is shifting in that more real conversations are happening. But given the immensity of the impact that climate change is going to have on water in the West, we still see the huge preponderance of coverage being about catastrophic impacts that look like forest fires and storms. So the news coverage is not where it needs to be.

Part of the problem is that we are still largely disaster-driven when it comes to coverage of adapting to climate change. And that’s natural because disasters are bigger stories, but finding ways to promote solutions stories absent a disaster is really important. We should create a steady drumbeat of stories to fill the valleys between the extreme weather events. And that’s not easy. Those stories take a lot of preparation and forethought. But there are media pathways that are available to push content out that we didn’t have before, and that’s good. To the degree climate change is branding itself as one big extreme weather event, people won’t be enticed into action. We need people to feel both empowered and obligated.

How do climate change adaptation advocates – utilities, community leaders, scientists, NGOs – take advantage of the climate coverage to talk about solutions and the imperative for smart decision making on water security?

My advice to adaptation advocates is twofold: first, figure out ways to communicate what decisions need to be made to adapt, and portray climate change as a “today” problem, not a “tomorrow” problem. People will always put off until tomorrow what they can, and that’s getting us into trouble. Second, be much more active in communicating what the choices really are.

As a matter of policy, I think the other thing that is really true is the old view of mitigation and adaptation as two separate spheres is erroneous. If you think of a Venn diagram with one circle for adaptation and one for mitigation, I would be looking for that sweet spot of overlap between those two. Water conservation is the easiest thing to identify in the overlap. You use less greenhouse gas, and you adapt to a different water regime at the same time.

What about telling the stories of how much cheaper it is to prepare and make smart investments today – the avoided costs argument?

The avoided costs argument works better with policy makers. What gets to the public is that we’re running out of water given the way we use it now. That’s the point where the public starts caring. And to address that we need to get the stories of early champions out there who can model good behavior, like so many innovative water utilities. They are trusted, they are good guys, and they can tell their ratepayers: these are the choices and here’s the right choice. And they can do that so much more powerfully than any NGO advocacy group.

This is also connected to telling compelling solutions stories. And that means someone doing something great. We always need a hero or heroine. The solution has to seem replicable. And it really helps to have a bad guy too – someone who’s trying to stop the hero.

What about telling the multiple benefit/strange bedfellows stories going on these days in the water world – does that inspire people?

Yes and no. People’s values do not change – they care about what they care about. So yes, the multiple benefits/strange bedfellows stories of water management is pretty important. But the “benefits” must really matter to people. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, we are working on floodplain restoration, and those benefits include public safety and flood protection, in addition to the environmental goodies. But that only works because people care about public safety and in the Northwest, people care about salmon.

Anytime I hear an advocate say, “we’ve got to get people to believe…fill in the blank…” I say you’ve already lost. People believe what they believe. Your job as a communicator is to connect your issue to what your audiences already believes and values. To do this you need credible messengers. That is often not the environmental base. So who else do you get to carry the water, no pun intended? That is all about bringing in new constituencies and building new coalitions. And that’s the long game, which has been harder to get support for, especially on the conservation side.

Scott Miller spent 23 years as a television journalist, including 15 years covering the environment for KING 5 TV, the NBC affiliate in Seattle. In addition to winning three Emmy awards, Miller’s work was recognized by the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists. From 2002-2009 Scott served as CEO of Resource Media, leading the organization through a rapid time of growth and expansion. In 2009, Scott became a Senior Program Officer at The Russell Family Foundation, overseeing environmental grant making. Scott returned to lead Resource Media in August of 2012.

 9/4/14

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