Communicators Must Elevate EcoHealth. The Planet and its People are Depending on Us
October 5, 2021
Examples abound that public health and environmental health are inextricably entwined. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of premature death globally; lack of access to clean safe drinking water has profound health impacts; communities located near toxic waste sites experience more cancer and other health hazards, a continual reminder that our built environment affects our health, whether it is lead in our drinking pipes or exposure to “forever chemicals.”
To accept that many of our greatest health challenges today derive from environmental degradation is to understand that our greatest chance for reversing the damage is by marrying the environment and health in the public imagination.
Enter EcoHealth, the communications industry’s opportunity to be a true change agent in the greatest battle of our age – the fight to save the planet and the people who call it home.
There is both an increasing sense of urgency to address EcoHealth challenges and a reluctance to change. But forestalling the survival imperative threatens businesses, nations, and community. Research, education, awareness, and legislation are the pathways for immediate action – starting with tackling climate change. The recent release of the UN Report on Climate Change highlights the urgent need to curb the increase in our planet’s temperature.
The report also places the onus on every industry to do its part. This includes those of us who are corporate and policy communicators. We owe it to those we impact to illuminate for them the connection between their own health and a healthy environment. We can start by taking lessons learned from the COVID-19 response to develop EcoHealth strategies.
The health of the environment has been debated for decades, so much so that the debate itself has become toxic. This is regrettable, but real.
The science is complex, detailed, and replete with caveats and qualifications. Scientists are challenged to communicate in consumer terms. The negative health impacts of pollution are not immediately discernable, as it often takes years to see the adverse health impacts of polluting activities. The public is skeptical of the mainstream media and the advent of the internet and social media renders everyone an expert, making it hard for the average person to discern between good science and a blogger espousing nonsense. Moreover, the 24/7 “news” cycle means the flood of disinformation never stops confusing. Beyond the media, we distrust government, and we live in a highly divided political world where even basic issues of public health become a political litmus test. Given these challenges, how do we effectively communicate about significant EcoHeath issues like climate change?
COVID Lessons Learned
Our recent experience with the COVID 19 pandemic is instructive. In early 2020, when COVID cases first appeared in the US, the initial reaction among many was to dismiss it. Political leaders challenged the significance of the virus and the need to act. Self-interested agitators railed against the pandemic and the need for social distancing, masking, closing certain businesses and events, and even the vaccine itself. Then some of those same skeptics started getting COVID – and dying. The virus’ refusal to bend to alternate realities began to change hearts and minds.
When the Delta variant emerged and the numbers started going up again, the effort to reach the skeptical ramped up and vaccinations started to go up. The communication strategy shifted away from doctors and scientists giving academic briefings with complex analyses. It was replaced with different messengers. We enlisted figures respected by those who resisted the vaccine. We asked preachers in the pulpit to promote vaccinations and address the myths. We turned to professional athletes, country music stars, race car drivers and other influencers, who all came together to encourage everyone to get jabbed. Even political leaders and talk show pundits, who had dismissed the virus as “much ado about very little,” began to urge others to vaccinate. Employers and others incentivized people to get vaccinated; many ultimately mandated it. Research, education, awareness and legislation became the many pathways toward change and action.
A Path Forward
We have been talking about climate change for years, and the impacts of behaviors on health issues like obesity, diabetes, and others. Yet these challenges remain and, in many cases, continue to get worse. Many have become tone deaf to the issues at best, or outright skeptics at worse. We need to do a better job to communicate these issues in a way that will lead to business and consumer behavioral change.
How do companies and communications professionals take lessons learned from Covid to generate action that moves people to work to save or planet and save ourselves?
As a threshold, environmental and health advocacy communicators should recognize they have much in common and can learn best practices from each other. As we wrote in an earlier piece (embed link to earlier article):
- The environmental movement is driven forward through the work of activists who face an environmental threat in common. Likewise, patient advocacy communities, bound together by people who face the same disease, can drive treatment developments.
- Both environmental and health communicators already employ novel approaches to digital technologies that facilitate more effective communications. These digital communications platforms and approaches can help both disciplines find common cause and amplify reach and impact.
- Everything that’s good for the environment is also good for the health of individual people and all of humanity’s endeavors. This should be our common message.
But how do we foster the change we seek?
A study out of Great Britain looked at public engagement on climate change post-Brexit on those with a center right perspective. Its compelling observations are useful for EcoHealth communicators. The focus group participants surveyed appreciated a positive tone in messaging about a clean energy future. They did not believe in absolutes – e.g., “We can have a 100 percent clean energy future.” Messaging that touted dramatic change bred skepticism. The core values of the focus group included a sense of fairness, protecting their family, helping others, and living a good life. Messaging about the need to change behaviors consistent with those values was more likely to be embraced.
With these outreach approaches in mind, communications professionals must appreciate the imperative to reach out to the unconvinced if they want to be effective in embedding an EcoHealth ethos. We need to recognize multiple audiences, prioritize them all, and take the time to tailor messaging to suit them. Also, we must recognize that the messenger is as important as the message. Win over the listener by being encouraging and respectful, not by shaming. The stakes are too high to ignore or abandon any audience. Avoiding the realities of inaction is too dangerous.