Climate change continues to be a polarizing issue in the public and a challenging issue for PR practitioners to communicate effectively. Communicators have tried many varied ways to communicate climate change to motivate support for action. Climate change is all around us. Game of Thrones (GOT) is considered the most prominent cultural analogy for climate change. Have to see White Walkers to believe they are real? Daenerys is not alone. For some, climate change is beyond debate and burgeoning with scientific proof. For others, this issue is lacking scientific evidence and simply propaganda perpetuated by the media (or by Jon Snow if we are sticking with our GOT analogy). How can one environmental issue be viewed so differently, and passionately, by so many?

A study, funded by the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State, examined the way climate change is framed and the impact of different message frames based on the audience’s political ideology. Three focus groups were completed with PR practitioners who communicate about climate change to understand their perceptions of message frames, and how they choose which frames to use with different audiences and the ethical considerations associated with various frames. The researchers then conducted an online experiment to examine the effectiveness of prominent message frames and how ethics were perceived by lay audiences.

The “psychological distance” of climate change—the perception that something will happen far in the future or that it will affect someone else far away—and political polarization have been major challenges in communicating the issue to the public. The study found that the frames considered most effective by PR practitioners were economic and public health frames. PR practitioners revealed they often avoid using the term climate change and discuss specific adaptation strategies rather than the cause of climate change. Conversations also revealed that science communicators rarely consider ethical issues beyond being truthful and accurate. Some practitioners brought up issues of social justice and how not all populations can adapt to climate change. Lastly, the findings support that both strategic decisions and professional constraints influence PR practitioners’ decision making when it comes to choosing messaging. The results revealed that some communicators felt political pressure to communicate in certain ways, whether it was from their organization or audience.

A survey-experiment was conducted to investigate how political ideology, type of message frame and organization type might influence message perceptions. Results demonstrated that political ideology is indeed a strong predictor of perceptions of climate change messages. As liberalism decreased and conservatism increased, climate change messages—regardless of type of frame—were perceived as less ethical, less credible and less effective. Findings also showed people were more likely to view messages regarding climate change from a corporation as more credible than from a government agency.

Political ideology is a strong predictor of how people perceive messages about polarized scientific issues. Communicators need effective messaging strategies when discussing issues related to climate change and should frame messages so they do not evoke political ideology. While political ideology predicting attitudes toward climate change has been studied extensively, this study added in the practitioner perspective and the perceptions of ethics by both practitioners and the public. PR pros should think about the ethical considerations of climate change considerations beyond the need to be truthful and accurate when communicating. To communicate effectively, communications should focus on the consequences of climate change and avoid the politically charged term “climate change” when possible.

This project was among six research studies funded by the 2016 Page & Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants and conducted by Nicole Lee, North Carolina State University, Matthew VanDyke, Appalachian State University, and Rachel Hutman, W2O Group.