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date: 26 April 2017

How Public Relations and Advertising Have Shaped Public Debate Over Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The persuasive industries of advertising and public relations are inextricably intertwined with the cultures of the industrial revolution and neoliberal market economics—the very forces that are primarily responsible for bringing us to a warming world. Is it possible they can evolve from being part of the problem to forming part of the solution? Historically, advertising and public relations professionals operate in the service of paying clients. There are a number of governmental and non-governmental entities promoting carbon reduction and other climate change mitigation and adaptation policy positions and individual behaviors. Although significant, the “share of voice” for these communication campaigns remains negligible in the context of hyper-mediated modern social life. It is unrealistic, therefore, to expect that the advertising and public relations industries could have a significant impact on climate change attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and behaviors by directing their collective creative energies and resources to traditional public information campaigns. Reflecting on the nature and operation of these persuasive industries, however, it may be possible for the advertising and public relations industries to have significant—and perhaps critical—indirect impacts. Many science and policy communicators think in terms of informational message strategies. However, as the history of advertising and public relations has shown, persuasion happens in more emotional and indirect ways. In rhetorical terms, the most persuasive messages often communicate through enthymemes—non-explicit or unstated assumptions and conclusions that audiences accept as “given” and without scrutiny or counter-arguing. This reality provides an opening for strategic communicators to contribute to pro-science public attitudes in the service of all clients. With close and transparent consideration of the ethical implications, the indirect client of strategic communications can be client earth.