The Hoggan Blog

James Hoggan on the Power of “Dread”

Posted on: February 25, 2016

Here’s a new column in BC Business by James Hoggan on “How dread increases society’s perception of risk.” 

Jim writes that,

“The power of emotion is a critical consideration in risk communication. No matter how good you think your argument is in a time of crisis, regardless of how provable your facts, if the public feels its liberty or right to fair treatment or livelihood is in danger, you’re losing the battle to dread.”

You can read the entire article over on BC Business at: How dread increases society’s perception of risk, James Hoggan.


James Hoggan: The Secret to Successful Risk Communications

Posted on: February 2, 2016



When it comes to public opinion, there’s a common belief among companies and their communication teams that providing facts is the best way to sell your side of the story. The more information, the more likely the public will be on side, right? Wrong.

Look at high-profile examples across B.C. such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project or Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. Despite an overwhelming amount of information provided by these companies and their armies of PR people, these proposed developments have become textbook examples of how not to try to achieve social licence to operate.

Despite these companies’ assurances their projects will create jobs, are safe and respect the environment, the public continues to see the benefits as small and the risks unacceptably high. In fact, the B.C. government recently said it couldn’t support Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion project because the company isn’t offering enough details around how it would respond to a potential spill.

It’s not that information doesn’t matter. Society is structured around the use of information to back arguments and make decisions. However, a growing body of research on how people develop perceptions of risk shows that information alone does not change people’s fears and concerns about what is risky. Emotions play a huge part.

According to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who has studied the various social and cultural factors that lead to disputes and disagreements about risk, the problem lies in the diverse views between how “experts” and the public view risk.

Experts look at risk as a calculation of probability and consequence. It’s about numbers. The public takes a more personal approach; their perceptions are around personal control, voluntariness, children and future generations, trust, equity, benefits and consequences.

Slovic says the mistake the experts (and the companies they represent) make is viewing themselves as objective and the public as subjective. They perceive the public as being too emotional and having irrational fear. The public’s attitude is then dismissed as laypeople that get the fact wrong and don’t understand the evidence.

“Laypeople sometimes lack certain information about hazards,” Slovic says. “However their basic conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.”

This is where a company’s decision to “educate” the public to take its point of view can really backfire. People aren’t sitting around waiting to be told what to think. In fact, few of us like being told what to think.

Risk communicators need to be sensitive to this broader concept of risk. Facts aren’t just facts. They aren’t as objective as we assume they are. Facts and risk are subjective for both experts and the public. They are a blend of values, biases and ideology. The hypodermic needle theory of communication, where we administer the facts to cure people of their misunderstanding, doesn’t work.

James Hoggan is a public relations consultant. His latest book, I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, will be published in May

You can click here to follow James Hoggan on Twitter.


James Hoggan’s recent article: Winning in the Court of Public Opinion, The Advocate

Posted on: January 15, 2016

Winning in the Court of Public Opinion

By James Hoggan | The Advocate | Vol 73 Part 6 | November 2015

You can click here to follow James Hoggan on Twitter.

PR often gets a bad rap. What some people shrug off as spin, is actually effective reputation management – if done well

What do a Hepatitis A outbreak at a health food store, a fatal Taser incident at the airport, and a deadly sawmill explosion have in common? Each was tragic real-life event that happened here in British Columbia, forcing the professional pairing of the legal and public relations communities to help manage the fallout.

When a crisis hits, people and organizations involved often face legal challenges, while at the same time being tried in the court of public opinion. Both scenarios can have potentially devastating impacts, including loss of credibility and reputation – the most important assets for most. For those involved in a crisis, presenting the best case to society can be just as important as what’s put forward to a judge or jury.

This is where the public relations (PR) professionals come in. The PR industry sometimes gets a bad rap for what some perceive to be “spin” on an issue. Some individuals and organizations may even be reluctant to hire a PR firm because of this often false professional stereotype, says Adriana Wills, a partner at Vancouver-based law firm Harris and Co.

Wills, who specializes in employment and workplace law, has had clients over the years who don’t believe they need a PR professional to help them, or don’t want to be associated with one.

“There may be some reticence of others finding out they need a professional to help them tell the truth,” says Wills.

She disagrees with this take, believing good PR firms can add value for her clients. Wills says many of her clients have turned to PR consultants over the years, seeking professional advice and strategies on how to best communicate their messages to the public.

“I wish more clients were willing to use the expertise – whether it’s for a news release or to coach them on how to convey their message to stakeholders, such as employees or the general public, or both,” Wills says.

"Some clients are concerned that they will be perceived as attempting to misrepresent or cloud the issues," Wills adds. "In my view, the use of PR professionals is not intended to persuade people of something which is not the truth. It is about ensuring that the truth will be heard. It is about using PR expertise to deliver the information in a way which will capture the attention of the intended audience and have them pause, receive the information and ideally accept the information. Whatever the message is, it can be said with greater clarity and effectiveness with the help and expertise of a PR firm; and, in a way which is not seen as attempting to mislead the public."

The right PR advice – delivered at the right time – can make a huge difference on how a client comes out of a crisis. That includes strategies such as knowing when to hold a press conference, or just put out a media statement or who to put forward as a spokesperson – whether it’s a lawyer, a company executive, for example. Each case is different, and having PR professional with experience in crisis management and who follows media behaviour, can be the difference between winning and losing the public relations battle.

Lawyers and PR people can (and do) work together well

Lawyers and PR people have very distinct roles when it comes to managing a client crisis. While they may not always agree on the best communication approach, some lawyers interviewed for this article agree that communication strategies outside of the courtroom should be driven by advice from the PR pros.

“Lawyers are good communicators, but in a very structured environment where there are strict rules and judges,” says Art Vertlieb, associate counsel at MacKenzie Fujisawa LLP in Vancouver and former president of the Law Society of British Columbia.

“However, none of this fits into the modern communication world we are living in.”

Vertlieb believes PR advisors can help lawyers and their clients’ deal with issues that they may not be necessarily trained to deal with, such as public perception and reaction to a case through traditional and social media, as well as by other stakeholders such as customers, employees and governments.

Irwin Nathanson, a partner at Vancouver-based Nathanson Schachter & Thomson LLP, says lawyers can be reluctant to get involved in PR campaigns, especially if their client is facing allegations where all of the information may not yet be released.

“As a litigator, what I worry about is someone tries to get ahead of the problem and do a campaign without all of the facts,” Nathanson says. The problem arises when the client may not be telling the whole story, or they may not know what other allegations are coming.

“There’s the potential between trickiness between the PR firm and client wanting to get the position out there to the public, on one hand, and the lawyer knowing, based on his or her experience, that the full story doesn’t get developed until later,” Nathanson says. “That’s the tension. It’s what makes any ligation lawyer very nervous.”

Nathanson says his most successful cases, which include the support of PR firms, are when the two parties work collaboratively with the client. Some lawyers are savvier than others in trying to find a working arrangement with PR firms and their clients.

Nazeer Mitha, a partner at Harris, says he’s had a number of good experiences working with PR firms on client cases.

“It’s about finding a balance between getting the right PR advice, while at the same time ensuring the legal side of the case remains protected,” says Mitha.

Even if a client has its own PR team, Mitha will sometimes solicit the advice of an external PR firm if he feels a second opinion or different strategy could be beneficial. Unlike some lawyers, Mitha doesn’t discourage his clients from talking to the media or other stakeholders in a crisis, if it’s for their own benefit.

“It’s not about influencing the legal outcome,” says Mitha, ”but there should be a recognition that the client may have motivations other than just the court case.”

For example, if a company is facing a product recall and wants to keep customers informed and try not to lose their trust, Mitha says a PR firm can help them communicate more effectively.

“The purpose of the public relations outreach isn’t to influence the court proceedings, but instead to assist the company in dealing with the fallout,” he says.

Mitha agrees with Nathanson that there can be tension between lawyers and PR professionals on how a clients should face the public during a crisis, “but I think as long as the comments aren’t intended to influence the court proceeding, then I think it’s important for a company to deal with its PR issues.”

In fact, he says in cases such as these it’s not good idea for lawyers to shut down communication entirely by simply saying the matter is before the court.

“It’s why PR professionals and lawyers should work together; to make sure what is being communicated helps, and doesn’t hurt the client,” Mitha says.

Tips for Lawyers: How to help your client win outside the courtroom:

Crisis management often comes down to a character test. Whether it’s an individual or an organization, how a high-profile controversy is managed can have more impact on reputation than what caused the problem from the start.

Unfortunately, facts aren’t enough. A crisis calls for strategy on how to best communicate them. That includes taking responsibility, acknowledging and solving the problem, treating people fairly, and managing the situation properly. It’s the latter – including knowing when to speak out and how much to say – where experienced PR professionals can make a huge difference.

Below are five ways a PR advisors can support legal clients in a crisis situation.

1.     Protect reputation: Credibility and reputation are the most valuable assets a person or an organization has. Losing these can have both a direct and indirect financial impact. That includes the potential loss of customers and employee morale, as well increased regulatory scrutiny, depending on the situation. A strong, experienced public relations team can work with legal professionals to help their client manage through a crisis, with a main goal of protecting reputation. The key is to not let others define them. Especially in a crisis, a person or organization can’t simply stand by and hope customers or stakeholders will understand their position. Hiring a PR firm isn’t about promoting or covering up an issue; it’s about ensuring it’s managed properly, by people with experience who do this type of work for a living. 

2.     Be transparent: In the face of a high-profile public relations crisis, one common (and very human) response is to huddle behind closed doors and hope it all blows over. This is usually the wrong move. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and it will often be bad. Remember too that it’s not just the media that will be seeking information and clarity, but the general public and other stakeholders through increasingly powerful social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. In many cases, allowing your client to their story out, as quickly as possible, can be the fastest way to get off the front page or stop trending on Twitter. There are exceptions. In some instances, immediately firing off a news release, tweet, or calling a press conference might not be the best course of action, especially if there’s a risk that it will only fan the flames. The right reaction, and timing, requires strategic thinking – after weighing all of the pros and cons. A PR expert knows how to do this.

3.     Communication must go two ways: All good conversations run two ways. The same is true during a crisis. Your client must be able to articulate his or her position in a clear and engaging way. What they say should be dictated in part by what conversation is already taking place. That can be through traditional or social media, or by stakeholders such as employees and suppliers. Before your client decides what needs to be said, they must pay attention to the audience’s position. A PR firm can help find the right strategic response. They can also monitor whether and to what degree the audience is hearing and understanding the message you’re trying to get across. Finally, you must be willing to allow the conversation – and perhaps even your position – to change in the process, where necessary. Only by being responsive can you demonstrate good faith.

4.     Choose the right messenger: When framing an issue, the person talking is sometimes more important than what is being said. For example, a corporate executive and a union negotiator might look uniformly self-interested in a labour dispute, where an injured third party might cast the story in a different light. The same is true for a lawyer or law firm speaking on behalf of a client. In the case of a class action suit or a serious charge, a lawyer might make the best spokesperson addressing the legal side of the issue. However, a lawyer may not be a good public representative when it comes to an environmental disaster, when the public really wants to hear from the head of the company responsible. Knowing which spokesperson to put forward, and when, is something an experienced PR team knows how to handle, based on the specific situation. They can also help to lessen the risk of the crisis being mismanaged or spiraling out of control.

5.     Do the Right Thing: How you handle a crisis can do more damage to a reputation than the crisis itself. Communicating in such an environment is 80 per cent about what is done and 20 per cent about what is said. A crisis is already a problem, but to prevent it from getting worse there’s one common approach, broken down into three simple steps:

1)     Do the right thing

2)     Be seen doing the right thing

3)     Don’t mix up #1 and #2

The best chance of maintaining credibility during a crisis is to establish a reputation for doing the right thing. Keep in mind that the public or other stakeholders don’t want to see you doing PR. They want to see what you’re doing to fix the issue. They’re looking for you to do the right thing. A good PR firm can you figure out how to do it well. It may sound simple, but when you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s often difficult to know exactly what “the right thing” is.

Public relations is not advertising and it’s not spin. Good public relations is about managing and protecting reputation, especially in times of crisis. Lawyers and PR professionals can and should work together to help clients maintain their reputation not just when things go wrong, but also for years after the case is closed.

James Hoggan is the president of Hoggan & Associates. 





James Hoggan on CFAX Discussing Empathy and the Polluted Public Square

Posted on: September 6, 2013

Jim Hoggan's interview with CFAX discussing his upcoming speech for The Walrus' "The Art of Conversation' national speakers series and his next book, The Polluted Public Square.


Jim will be speaking on Monday, September 16 in Victora at the Belfry Theatre.

For tickets, visit:

James Hoggan is the president of Hoggan & Associates. 

You can click here to follow James Hoggan on Twitter.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Human Change Resistance and How to Overcome It

Posted on: July 24, 2013

Brilliant new piece by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker about human change resistance and how to overcome it. The article touches on lessons from behavioral economics to explain why we still resist change in spite of overwhelming evidence scientific evidence of a destructive warming climate and the health damage that comes from high sugar and high-fat diets. These kinds of problems worsen every day because they're invisible, tedious and involve self-sacrifice. So when problems seem distant, sacrifices high and benefits low, we tend to resist change – even when we know better.

Atul writes about the brilliant public intellectual Everett Rogers who argued that hard changes are best spread by people talking to people. While some ideas catch like wildfire, according to Rogers, slow ideas are best communicated and spread through social interaction, where we follow the lead of other people we know and trust.

Link to New Yorker Article

Tags: , ,

New Poll Shows Enbridge Proposal Has Deficit of Trust and Legitimacy

Posted on: September 28, 2012

The inept communication from Enbridge is not surprising. The business community as a whole is naive about the rules that govern public communication when the public starts out inattentive and mistrustful. Unfortunately this is also one of those proposals with a fatal flaw. The more the public learns about the Northern Gateway proposal the more they opposed it.


Vancouver, BC – A new poll sheds light on what motivates public opinion about the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project. It shows that British Columbians do not trust most key influencers and decision-makers associated with the proposal, and that perceptions of its legitimacy are sharply divided.

Key results include: 81% of British Columbians believe the Northern Gateway project will benefit Alberta, 53% say it will benefit Canada, and 43% say it will benefit BC. 77% of British Columbians partially or completely distrust Enbridge when it comes to the project: 53% do not trust Enbridge at all. Only 28% of respondents say the proposal is part of a future they believe in, but 39% of British Columbians think that the project is going to happen whether or not they support it.

The research was conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, a practice of Vision Critical, on behalf of Vancouver resident Gavin Dew, as part of his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) thesis at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Survey questions were fielded on August 22nd, 2012. Result tables are provided below.

“The prognosis for Enbridge isn’t great,” said Dew. “If they’re going to turn it around, Enbridge and its allies need to make the national economic benefit tangible and real for everyday British Columbians. They need to better explain how their proposal fits into a future that people want to believe in.” On the other hand, “Enbridge’s opponents have succeeded in painting the project as morally illegitimate; part of the past, not the future. Opponents would be wise to keep hammering their message that the benefits will accrue to Alberta and to ‘big business’ in the abstract, while everyday British Columbians take the lion’s share of the risk.”

Dew’s research focused on the meaning and measurement of ‘social license to operate’, an academic concept that covers the requirement of social approval for businesses to function effectively. ‘Trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ are key components of social license.

“Companies increasingly recognize the importance of social license to operate – but there is no real consensus on what it means, and even less on how to measure it,” said Dew. “Public opinion acts as ‘civil regulation,’ compelling companies to go beyond compliance with formal laws and regulations.”

The polling included both general and project-specific questions, using the Enbridge Northern Gateway project as a test case.

“Enbridge is a perfect, relatively unique, and contained example because it symbolizes a major debate about the future of Canada, and it also illustrates the growing importance of social license as a concern for business,” said Dew. “This research demonstrates a new way of using polling to map the pressure points that matter most for a given project.”

To test trust in general, respondents were asked ‘to what extent do you trust the following to do what is right?’ The results were converted into a “Net Trust” measure by subtracting distrust from trust – for example, 33% of British Columbians trust the media in general and 63% distrust it, yielding a Net Trust score of -30%. Other notable Net Trust scores include: business (-16%), government (-32%), regulatory agencies (-8%), and environmentalist groups (+8%). Tables are below.

“There is a major trust deficit in BC,” argues Dew, “especially when it comes to traditional authorities and sources of information.”

Respondents were also asked ‘to what extent do you trust the following to do what is right when it comes to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline?’ General versus Enbridge-specific Net Trust varies significantly in some cases. The BC government’s general Net Trust is -33%, and its Enbridge-specific Net Trust is -30%. The Canadian government scores -24% in general, and -35% regarding Enbridge. The Alberta government scores -30% generally and -47% regarding Enbridge. First Nations groups score -20% in general and -7% regarding Enbridge. Regulators score -8% in general, and the Joint Review Panel scores -12% regarding Enbridge. Tables are below.

Enbridge suffers a significant trust gap on its own proposal. For comparison, business has general Net Trust of -16%, and the energy industry scores -50%. With regard to its own project, Enbridge scores -62% Net Trust: 77% of people distrust Enbridge, and only 15% trust the company. Strong feelings are highly consolidated: 53% have no trust at all in Enbridge, and only 2% trust the company completely, yielding a Net Strong Trust of     -51%.

“Just as business needs a social license to act, the influence that government and civil society groups can exercise depends on what I call their social license to critique,” said Dew. “Clearly there are very few influencers who have sufficient public trust to move the dial on the Enbridge issue, and especially few supporters with strong public trust.”

The poll also tested the perceived legitimacy of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, measuring three different forms of legitimacy: pragmatic, moral, and cognitive. Pragmatic legitimacy is based on perceived direct, indirect, and social benefits. Moral legitimacy is based on values alignment. Cognitive legitimacy is based on comprehensibility or inevitability.

In terms of pragmatic legitimacy, 81% of British Columbians believe the project will benefit Alberta, 53% say it will benefit Canada, 43% say it will benefit BC, 32% say it will benefit them indirectly, and 13% say it will benefit them directly.

Regarding moral legitimacy, 28% of respondents say the project is part of a future they believe in, and 23% say it feels like the right thing to do.

“Enbridge has a major moral legitimacy problem,” surmises Dew.

Tests of cognitive legitimacy show that the perceived novelty of the project is a drag on public support: many British Columbians are seemingly uncomfortable or unfamiliar with energy infrastructure. Only 28% of respondents agreed with a statement testing the comprehensibility of the project: ‘even if I don’t agree with it, it seems logical based on my past experience.’ A question testing resignation to the perceived inevitability of the project received 39% agreement: ‘it is going to happen anyway, whether or not I support it.’

Further analysis helps illustrate what motivates support or opposition to the project. Among supporters, 90% agree that the project will benefit Canada, and 85% agree that it will benefit BC. 69% of supporters agree that it is ‘part of a future that I believe in,’ and 60% say that it ‘feels like the right thing to do.’ 63% of supporters say ‘even if I don’t agree with it, it seems logical based on my past experience.’

On the other hand, 93% of people who oppose the project reject the statement that ‘it feels like the right thing to do’, 89% of opponents disagree with ‘it is part of a future that I believe in,’ 88% do not believe ‘it will benefit me directly,’ 75% disagree that it will benefit BC, and 60% disagree that it will benefit Canada. 83% of opponents reject the statement ‘even if don’t agree, it seems logical.’ Notably, 80% of people who oppose the project still believe it will benefit Alberta.

“Whether you’re trying to persuade a reluctant public to accept a project or rally opposition to stop it, this kind of analysis lets you shape policies and messages that work,” said Dew. “You need to understand the lay of the land early in the process in order to gain social license. Both reality and perception matter.”

“There is no line item for social license in a company’s balance sheet, but it is a critical strategic asset,” argues Dew. “It’s about dollars and cents, not just warm and fuzzy feelings. Companies across Canada are learning from watching the Enbridge situation unfold. They’re learning just how expensive it can be to lose your social license. We’ll be studying Enbridge for decades, whatever the outcome.”
Survey Details:

The survey sample included 802 randomly selected people, with a margin of error of  +/- 3.5%. The results were then statistically weighted according to Census data in order to provide a representative sample of the British Columbia adult population, reflecting education, age, gender, and region.


For more information about this survey please contact Gavin Dew at

Tags: , , , ,

Close Federal Race Continues [Survey]

Posted on: September 24, 2012

Excerpt from the latest Nanos Poll:

"Our latest tracking survey on the federal political scene suggests that the federal Conservatives and NDP continue to be in a tight race. Of note, however, the Conservative trend line over the past year indicates a slow erosion of support in wave after wave of research while the NDP continue to remain competitive.

On the Nanos Leadership Index, Harper's gain in terms of his brand has largely corresponded to a drop in undecided and none of the above views on the leadership measures.

If you recall, when we first saw his brand drop this past spring it was when he was dealing with the cost estimates of the F35 procurement, the omnibus bill, and robocalls. When his scores dropped the level of undecided and none of the above rose. At that time this likely pointed to the case of disappointment and parking than embracing other federal leaders.

Now with greater distance from the turbulent spring, a summer without the house sitting, effectively taking away the platform for the opposition parties to attack Harper, Harper's scores have improved. That being said, with the House convening we will have to see how effective or ineffective the opposition parties are and the possible impact on the perceptions of Harper and all the leaders."

Download survey results

Tags: ,

Science Communication as the “New Political Science” for Democracy [Video]

Posted on:

Dan M. Kahan describes the concept of "The Science of Science Communication" – the idea that there is a science environment where people form their perceptions of risk and gather facts that lead to policy consequences. Like our natural environment, which is essential to the health of individuals living inb a society, the environment for science communication is essential for "enlightened democratic self governance.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Disintegration of Our Trust in Public Speech

Posted on: September 3, 2012

In this New York Times opinion piece, Speech, Lies and Apathy, Rutgers University professor of philosophy, Jason Stanley, writes about how the evolving US presidential campaign demonstrates his belief that the public’s trust in public speech has disintegrated to such a degree that it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere.

Tags: , , , ,

Interview with Jim Hoggan: “Smashing Heads Doesn’t Open Minds”

Posted on: August 22, 2012

In this interview with the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers' Network, Jim Hoggan echoes communications themes brought forward in his CEGN's May conference keynote address titled "Smashing Heads Doesn't Open Minds."

Editor: One of the key goals of CEGN's new strategic plan is to "Give public voice to our shared aspirations". This has been spurred by the recent spotlight on the environmental community and environmental funders and a realization that the messages coming from the community have often been fragmented and reactive. What is your advice on how best to reframe the current conversation around the environment?

Jim: I don't like to offer specific reframing advice without taking a closer look at the details, so please take my comments as broad brush observations. My sense is that Canadians think the federal government has overstepped with its rhetoric. The public isn't buying the demonization of environmental leaders. Public opinion research confirms that Canadians feel we need a balanced conversation about economy and the environment. They believe that environmental groups and funders help provide that balance. There is broad public support for fair minded and respectful conversations about how we develop resources in a way that is good for the future and not destructive for the planet.

But people need to know what we are talking about, what the vision is. We need to communicate with Canadians in a more holistic and personal way, less intellectual policy wonk stuff. People understand things emotionally first. Canadians need to feel how environmental issues like climate change will affect our families, neighbourhoods and lives. Environment is a core value for Canadians.

Canadians see the conflict between environment and the economy and they feel we should be looking after both.

The lesson environmental leaders can take away from this attack by the Oil and Gas Industry and the Harper Government is a basic lesson of public communication: If you don't tell them someone else will and it will be bad.

So I agree with your focus. The environmental community needs to create a more compelling vision and narrative. The sustainability/environmental narrative isn't clear to people. We need to do a better job of telling our own story. We need research that looks deeply into a new more compelling environmental narrative. The public story can't be all about fights between industry and ENGOs.

Editor: In your conference keynote – "Smashing Heads Doesn't Open Minds" – you spoke eloquently to the kind of communication that works and the kind that doesn't. Can you share some of your insights here, as well as touch on your own path for arriving at these insights?

Jim: There is so much industry misinformation and spin when talking about environmental issues. And although ENGO advocacy is important there is a downside to being too combative. Advocacy may put necessary pressure on industry and government but the downside of this is polarization.

This combination of industry misinformation and over the top ENGO advocacy is very destructive – leading to the ‘polluted public square' that we have today where the public discourse is very toxic. As a result, most Canadians have turned away and disengaged from public conversations about these issues.

Polarization can make the resolution of environmental issues less likely. We need to look for alternatives. Self-righteous campaigns have limits. Moral humility and looking for ways to find common ground are needed. This advice is echoed by many of the thought leaders, I have interviewed for my upcoming book, The Polluted Public Square. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist monk, urges us to "speak the truth, but not to punish". Dr. Karin Armstrong, a leading spiritual and religious historian, notes St. Paul's teaching that "charity takes no delight in the wrong doing of others".

Daniel Yankelovich, a US social scientist and public opinion analyst, notes that when people are operating in different realities with different facts and are so far apart that they are just talking past each other, communication isn't really taking place. As he says, "people need to be singing off the same song sheet." Otherwise, a public paralysis can result. That's what we have today. Environmental groups have helped turn the environment into a core Canadian value, but now the levels of disinterest, mistrust and polarization are so high that we can't move forward.

Editor: What would be your advice to funders as to how best to deploy philanthropic support to strengthen communication work by the environmental community?

Jim: Start with research into a new environmental narrative perhaps using a dialogue research method. Then use the research to build a powerful narrative that includes the idea of protecting the environment for people, rather than from people, and which speaks to the deeper values of who we are as Canadians and how we live our lives. The new narrative needs to be one of interconnectedness. The environment can't be seen as being separate and our narrative can't be a story just for environmentalists and academics.
We also need to build ENGO capacity to deliver articulate and effective stories that inspire people outside of the campaign work they do. People operate with a present bias and are most concerned about things that are close to them in time and space. They also place a high value on fairness for themselves and for others that are close to them. An effective communications approach needs to meet these and others challenges. The ENGO community knows these things but doesn't apply them.

Why we have failed to take collective action on environmental crises like climate change is one of the most critical questions of our time. And understanding how we overcome this collective paralysis is the most important environmental work we can do.
Be careful with what you might call the myth of apathy – take time to understand the real obstacles standing in the way of communication and connecting. Canadians do care about the environment.

Make sure facts are a part of the package but speak to people's emotions and values. Resist the temptation to sling mud at opponents. You may end up deepening their base of support and turning off the people you are trying to reach. Remember that you could be wrong.

We need to speak with moral humility instead of self righteousness. Develop powerful narratives that are consistent with what we know about human motivation. And most importantly, be authentic. Reflect on the deep personal motivations for the work that you do and use your own story to connect with the people you are trying to inspire.

Editor: Thanks very much Jim for this interview and for your fine presentation at CEGN's conference. With communications as a major focus for the network in the coming year, your insights are timely and much appreciated. 

Tags: , , , ,