Argyle Public Relationships

Issue of the month – May 2015: Climate of confusion

By Marc Budgell

/ Posted in Crisis

man in business suit wades through deep flood waterWelcome to May’s Issue of the Month, an Argyler’s take on two words the governor of Florida doesn’t want us to say… “Climate Change.”

In March, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published a “so bizarre it must be true” story about the governor’s alleged wishes. According to their investigation, officials in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been ordered not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails or reports. FCIR spoke with several former employees who confirmed the policy, each of whom received the instruction from superiors.

What exactly is going on here?

According to FCIR, the policy came into effect in 2011 when Republican governor Rick Scott was elected. Scott was on the record during his campaign as saying “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change… Nothing’s convinced me that there is.” In 2014, Scott refused to acknowledge his earlier opinion on the matter, simply stating “I’m not a scientist,” when again asked about the issue.

This response is not unique, and in fact seems to be a Republican key message regarding climate change. In a 2014 New York Times article, Coral Davenport pointed out that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John A. Boehner and others all stated “I’m not a scientist” when questioned about the issue. According to Davenport, this response has come about because the majority of Americans now accept climate change, making the previously vocal denials by many in the party an unpopular platform leading into the 2016 election. This new found policy of silence has led to the current situation in Florida.

The problem.

This sort of silence on an important public safety issue would be troublesome anywhere, but especially so in Florida. Miami is already feeling the effects of rising sea levels, with frequent flooding that is only going to get worse. Researchers believe that by 2045, the city could flood up to 230 times a year. Miami is just one of many coastal cities in the state that will face harsh realities over the coming decades that are directly related to climate change.

The Florida policy has been roundly mocked in news publications worldwide, and as time progresses common sense may prevail. But current rhetoric around the issue is impacting reporting and research on a very real and present danger in the state of Florida. From a communications perspective, the issue in Florida brings up several issues in the industry:

  • Transparency over rhetoric: Political messaging is here to stay, but it can’t get in the way of transparency or the public good. By restricting what their staff could say without providing valid reasoning or alternatives, the government in Florida opened themselves up to ridicule and severely damaged the credibility of their communications.
  • Deafening silence: When you are expected to comment on an issue of public interest (in the case of the Republican Party, a topic that you pushed to the forefront), deferring the question will increase scrutiny and call your integrity into question. If your position has changed over time, you need to address this openly and explain the change.

Another viewpoint: Brendan Agnew-Iller, Account Director
Communications is an art not a science. In any situation there are innumerable true statements: some are more precise, others more persuasive or beautiful. If we do our jobs well we can be all these things, while also supporting the narrative or position of our clients. Where we fall down is when we let the story we are trying to tell be more important than the facts. Politicians are notorious for failing this test and they do so constantly for the simple reason that they are trying to balance different, competing interests. The public, major donors and the public service all hold different facts to be true. In playing to one, a politician alienates another and risks becoming inauthentic, “plastic” and lacking credibility. In the case of climate change, many politicians are bought and paid for by carbon-intensive industries. They may refuse to act on climate change, but the fact that they are no longer arguing against it, should count as a major victory for science and good public policy.
About Issue of the Month:
At each agency-wide meeting, one Argyler volunteers to present an issue to the group for discussion and analysis. Our aim is to understand diverse viewpoints on the chosen issue, discuss what might have gone wrong and the counsel an Argyler would give those caught up in the dreaded “PR Fail.”

About the Author:
Marc Budgell is a Consultant at Argyle in the Corporate and Public Affairs practice. As a veteran issue of the month storyteller, I’ve been asked to run this feature. Each month I’ll weigh in on an issue and ask colleagues to chime in with their points-of-view.

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