Story by Meg Cressey
Photos by Olivia Hall
No storyteller wants their message to fall on deaf ears, especially when the goal of that content is to move people to action. But trying to communicate the importance of a complex topic like climate change or ocean acidification adds another layer to the challenge. How can you motivate people who don’t think environmental problems will impact them? How can you create content about problems in the atmosphere or below the surface of the ocean that actually resonates?
That’s what four Communication Leadership graduate students worked to find out at the 2017 Seattle Interactive Conference (SIC) last week.
The students are part of a year-long effort by the Communication Leadership program to tell stories and raise awareness about the Pacific Northwest’s most pressing climate issues, from sustainable fishing to pollution in Puget Sound. The project is supported by a grant from the Nippon Foundation, by way of the global Nereus Program.
In the Pacific Northwest, we’re surrounded by organizations and individuals working to turn the tide on ocean health. With the Nereus Project, Communication Leadership students will partner with organizations including Washington Sea Grant and the Suquamish Tribe to amplify stories of how the ocean’s health impacts the region, as well as of the people leading the charge to find solutions.
As the first step toward telling those stories, the students needed to dig in and do user research.
At SIC, members of Comm Lead’s Nereus team hosted “Oceans, Stories and YOU!” on the first day of the conference. Tapping into the energetic atmosphere of the tech conference, SIC attendees were invited to engage in an informal conversation about the issues threatening ocean health in the Pacific Northwest.
“We wanted to meet our audience where they’re at,” said Jennifer Mai, a member of Cohort ’17 and a Nereus Project team member, “and get an idea of the frame with which people understand their relationship to the ocean.”
SIC presented an ideal environment to hear from a wide range of community members and potential stakeholders.
As a few dozen conference goers crowded onto couches, footstools and the floor, Comm Lead student Tori Pinheiro kicked things off by asking a simple question: “What does the ocean mean to you?”
While some people talked about their love of sea creatures and others mentioned trips to the Washington coast, it was clear that the issue of ocean health resonated with each person in their own way.
Next, the crowd was broken up into four groups, each facilitated by a Comm Lead student. From there, the conversation shifted to how people perceived certain ocean health issues, as well as past climate change campaigns that they remember and that they think were successful. For one participant, the image of a dolphin entangled in can plastic has stuck with her throughout the years. For another, it was watching a compelling documentary on Netflix.
In addition to learning why ocean health matters to people, the key takeaway for the students was how people talked about ocean health.
For example, using terms like “ocean acidification” might not elicit an emotional response from someone; but a campaign might resonate if, instead, it talked about how dying coral means that future generations might never experience the Great Barrier Reef.
The session also served as an opportunity to deepen partnerships with local companies. Supporting Comm Lead in putting on the meet-up was WE Communications, a Bellevue-based PR firm.
“WE has at our core a purpose-driven mission,” said Kate Pisano, senior communication specialist at WE. So when WE heard about the Nereus Project, it was an easy decision for the company to “provide a forum for people to go out and make a difference,” as Pisano put it.
Now, armed with the keywords gleaned from the crowd at SIC, the student’s’ next step is to create a content strategy that can explain such a complex topic in words that will cut through the clutter and reach the average person.
Ocean health is a global problem, but through collaboration and a solid content strategy, the Communication Leadership students and the Nereus Program are poised to give the Pacific Northwest a fighting chance.
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