Tag Archive: Amazongate

A recent exchange in The Washington Post reminds us all that in sometimes in PR, as in life, the best defence is a good offence.

Michael Mann: Controversial and adversarial paleoclimatologist

About a month ago, the controversial U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Washington Post attacking the politicians who are making threatening noises towards him and his colleagues. Mann argues that senior U.S. politicians are playing politics with what should be objective science. Senator Joe Barton has written a response completely ignoring this argument and framing the discussion instead in terms freedom of speech and freedom to challenge scientists.

Rarely is it more clear that public debates are won and lost not with different answers to the same question, but by arguing over the nature of the question. Mann has pushing the debate towards greater scrutiny of the right-wing attack dogs that threaten climate science. By pointing to this undue politicisation, the debate is dragged away from bickering over scientific detail and from the community of climate scientists constantly fending off attacks that steadily chip away at their credibility.

Joe Barton: Republican Congressman from Texas in the news recently for attacking the White House's "shakedown" of BP

Climate scientists, like many scientists, are often too happy to bury themselves in their work and ignore the arguments going on around them. The climategate fiasco of last December was largely a result of inaction by the scientists under fire failing to open up and get their message out quickly enough, a classic case of surrendering control of the conversation.

Hoggan the Spotlight: Expert Perspective

James Hoggan, the CEO of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and the man behind an award winning climate change blog (pictured below) puts it, good PR involves three stages

  • Do the right thing
  • Be seen to be doing the right thing
  • Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up

With the climate science community we are so often left to wonder what happened to number 2. (See here for Hoggan’s blog’s take on the Washington post exchange.)

On a similar note, after existing for more than twenty years the high profile Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have announced in their most recent press release, which is about as quotable as most tax returns, that they are going to put together a communication strategy.

It’s about time.

James Hoggan: Expert in both good communications and the "Darth Vader" PR of some on the right-wing of US politics

IPCC Plays Defence

After a year that has encompassed “climategate” and the IPCC’s own “Amazongate”, this seems long overdue. The IPCC has long kept its head down and played a purely defensive game in its PR, and while good defense is important, it keeps the conversation on “can the IPCC be trusted?” and “is climate science credible?”. Some proportion of those reading that debate are bound to come down on the side of “no”. If the attacks are fended off well, that may be 20% rather than 80%, but it is still lost ground.

It is widely known in insider circles that the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (2007), the most recent, was written at the conservative end of climate science to avoid giving a platform for its critics. In a 3,000 page report, however, there were bound to be weaknesses found sooner or later. On top of this recent ad hominem attacks (attacks on people to undermine arguments – “playing the man and not the ball”), on its chairman Rajendra Pachauri show that even the defence is not enough. (It is worth reading the column in which George Monbiot lays waste to the claims made against Pachauri.)

While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the IPCC, say, take out a set of attack adverts against their detractors in true US political style, it’s good to see someone showing a bit of fight-back.

Accusations of alarmism are flying. If only the IPCC released cartoons as good as this one... (image from http://thebsreport.wordpress.com/)

I realise that blogs are supposed to express strong opinions clearly, but I’m a bit divided on this one. The IPCC was cleared on Monday (today as I write this) of “errors that would undermine the main conclusions” by an independent review called for by the Dutch parliament.

I suspect that, as with most enquiries anyone who wants to go on attacking the IPCC will focus on the negatives, like the argument that the IPCC focuses on worst case scenarios, and find some kind of evidence for bias to dismiss the positives. Anyone who wants to defend the IPCC will hold the exoneration up as gospel truth, as its Professor Martin Parry already has.

I can’t help but wonder if the IPCC could do with a more full-on media management strategy, tangling with specific criticisms as they arise, dealing with very specific detail and getting quotes out from key officials as soon as needed. By contrast, the press release dealing with their review is, frankly, drier than their own worst-case scenarios for the Sahara.

Then again, perhaps dignifying the media hoards looking for blood, and especially the die-hard sceptics (like Christopher Booker in the Telegraph, who’s been savaging the IPCC again recently, particularly over “Amazongate“) would politicise the IPCC more than it already is politicised and open it up to further mud-slinging. There have been a raft of controversial accusations recently, some withdrawn and apologised for.

By and large I’d say that more media management is better media management, but in this case their mistakes are often only interesting to people who obsessively follow climate change developments anyway, for business or for pleasure, and I suspect most of them know what they think already and are not going to change on the basis of a few vocal commentators. Perhaps by talking more, the IPCC would risk needlessly raising its profile and the profile of its controversies.

We shall see