Communicating in contemporary culture.
Jon Snow, the channel 4 journalist, chaired the morning’s panel discussions at the BMJ’s ‘Health and security perspectives of Climate Change’ conference held at the BMA in London on Monday 17th October 2011. In addition to his skills and experience based on years of writing and presenting, he brought interesting insights into how the media works, insights which healthcare professionals could learn from.
One message was that the media had lost interest in climate change, partly due to the hard lobbying by climate sceptics, partly due the East Anglia ‘climategate’ emails but also due to the financial crash of 2008. This illustrates Roger Pielke’s ‘iron law of climate policy’:
The lesson? Messages compete on an ideological stage for their performance time.
The medium of communication is important. The panel of 9 on the stage at the conference were asked whether they use twitter. One person affirmed this to be the case. Snow pointed out that those working in the media use twitter and other social networks as core tools in their armoury. Snow argued that he gets a great deal of useful information from twitter and suggested that the doctors and by implication other health professionals, ought to seriously consider it as a medium of communication.
This illustrates another issue. Healthcare professionals work in a particular communication bubble, as do academics. Those who we need to communicate with (the public, journalists) live in another communication bubble. There is some crossover between the two but the implication is that healthcare professionals, clinicians and academics, are out of the communication loop, that the overlap between the two worlds is not large enough.
At root is a misunderstanding of the link between knowledge and policy decisions/public understanding. Healthcare knowledge is often science based and rooted in medical understanding. There were suggestions from the floor that the science needs to be simplified and clarified in order to transmit the correct messages.
This will not work in the way we think it ought to.
Firstly, policy and understanding is not based on medicine and science, it is based on what the popular culture tells us, which in turn is shaped by various vested interests, ideology, misconceptions, advertising, public relations and dominant cultural paradigms, e.g. the ‘economic growth’ paradigm, the tenets of consumer capitalism, anthropocentrism and philosophical ‘dualism’ i.e. the ‘objective-subjective’ ‘nature-man’ divide.
Secondly we are using the wrong tools. Those who need the messages do not attend conferences, read academic journals or are linked into professional networks. They use facebook, twitter, radio, television and popular magazines. These media are not often used enough by academics, doctors and nurses.
Therefore the worlds are apart, divided by the understanding how the world works and by different tools of communication. The growing interest in ehealth and web based methods is an attempt to bridge that divide, but to date is still in its infancy. This is not to say these attempts are entirely absent, see for example the facebook group ‘Nursing Sustainability and Climate Change’, or the ‘Climate and Health Council’ website, but that there is a long way to go to understand what our story is and how to best connect with a wider audience. Healthcare professionals need to learn from media studies, social marketing and cognitive psychology on how to reach those who matter if we are interested in promulgating our messages.
A word of warning though. George Lakoff (2008), George Marshall (2014) and Noami Klein (2014) all describe in slightly different ways that this is almost a ‘culture war’ in that there are powerful vested interests who so far have dominated public discourse with a pro growth, small state, anti climate change message.
Klein N (2014) This changes everything. Climate vs Capitalism. Allen lane London.
Lakoff G (2008) The Political Mind. A cognitive scientists guide to your brain and its politics. Penguin. London.
Marshall G (2014) Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are hard wired to ignore climate change. Bloomsbury. New York.
Pielke, R. (2010) The Climate Fix. Basic Books. New York.