The year 2015 is a critical one for global collaboration on two complex and interconnected issues: climate and development.

There are some difficult messages to get across to the global public.

The Climate Change Conference in Paris in December is looking to achieve a global agreement on curbing emissions. In September, the UN General Assembly in New York will adopt a new generation of development goals – 17 of them – with objectives as clear as “end poverty in all its forms” and as nebulous as “strengthen the means of implementation”.

These are far reaching objectives which will touch every person on earth.

The question is this: how can they be communicated to a diverse planet of 7 billion people?

The video above captures some of the conversation on these topics in the official programme in Davos.

One session, called the New Communications Context, addressed the question directly.

The discussion was moderated by Pranjal Sharma, and featured Al Gore, Jimmy Wales and Jeremy Heimens.

The following session summary, prepared by Lena Dente, captures the flow of conversation.

The New Communications Context

  • The climate change and sustainable development agendas are strongly aligned and success in one area is not possible without success in the other. The year 2015 represents a momentous opportunity for action and momentum on these issues.
  • Communication and effective messaging are key to being successful in getting the general population and decision-makers behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • The public theatre for communications has changed remarkably since the Millennium Development Goals came out in 2000. This requires a rethinking of how to approach the messaging.
  • Communications and media technology will make the messaging more diverse and harder to control. New technologies and diversified communications offer opportunity for creativity, granular messaging, and innovative approaches to engagement.
  • Supporting the SDGs will require a long-term vision, approach and commitment from all players – governments, the private sector, civil society, NGOs – rather than a short-term media blitz.
  • Creating and providing a flexible framework or parameters for the “message” on SDGs could allow all stakeholders to tailor and adapt their own communications and engagement strategies to suit their own strengths and long-term interests.
  • The balance between the developed and developing worlds has shifted. The south has a much larger role to play than the north in achieving the SDGs. Successful and sustainable development of developing countries will determine the future.

Communications and linking climate change and sustainable development agendas

The climate change and sustainable development agendas are inextricably linked. Success in one area is not possible without success in the other. The great communication success from the September 2014 UN Summit in New York demonstrates that it is possible to raise passionate support and mobilize highly visible action on the issues related to climate change and sustainable development. The UN views 2015 as a watershed moment for the sustainable development space. The role of communications in achieving the SDGs cannot be underestimated. A key challenge is finding a better way to highlight everyone’s vested interests in the development and climate change agendas.

Public theatre for communications

The public theatre for communications has changed and expanded significantly since the MDGs were first announced in 2000, and yet the traditional media are still considerable players not to be ignored.

In this era of nearly universally accessible social media and the decentralized control of messaging, challenges exist relating to creating a communications strategy, identifying and engaging amplifiers for the message, and controlling the message once it is out.

The role of vested interests controlling broadcast media is a challenge in this space, as climate change and sustainable development can elicit strong reactions from those stakeholders who must change behaviour or business practices to meet the SDGs. Change and reform often face headwind. Some agendas in the public space are held by special interests, which may not align with the SDGs.

Access to technology and social media

As more and more of the world’s 7 billion people gain access to technology, both mobile communications and the internet, the viral spread of information becomes inevitable. This increased flow of information can help the SDGs become more powerful, because they can be part of the public vernacular. We can easily reach the 3 billion people who are active online. We can develop creative approaches to reach the other 4 billion people through partnerships with brands and products and through radio, which is important to many parts of the developing world.

Messaging in the age of social media

Given that social media has changed the way that constituencies can be engaged, the approach to communications and messaging must also be adapted to reflect this new reality. We are not living in a sound bite era, where messages can be carefully crafted, controlled and owned. That is only part of the picture. The era of memes is upon us. This means it may be possible to create and offer a framework, which can be adapted and tailored by various stakeholders – from high-level players to the individual – to suit their various agendas and goals. The message can be harmonized while not identical across all sectors and stakeholders.

Some elements to successful messaging could include communication strategies that:

  • are outcome-focused
  • look at the long term rather than the short term
  • offer a meta-narrative that allows for tailoring to specific needs

Further, it makes sense to identify influencers and amplifiers, such as the Pope, the Global Citizen Project, and corporations, civic society and universities, which work through educational channels to reach the coming generations.

Grand ambitions

If we are to successfully rally the public behind the SDGs, we need to ignite passions on these issues. Here, it may be helpful to identify shared values. The messaging must therefore make the SDGs personal to all segments of society so that everyone feels a personal imperative to act. Nobody will get excited about small goals, but they will feel energized by grand visions and the promise of creating real, positive and lasting change.

Communicating a grand ambition may require simplification of the message and a visual icon to create a community and rallying trademark for the SDGs. As there are 17 SDGs, we need to carefully consider how best to simplify and make memorable the message and call to actions related to them, while not diluting the urgency of any one goal. It is a balancing question and one that is not currently answered.

Momentum needed but the time is right

The year 2015 is a make-or-break one for the global sustainability agenda. There seems to be a tangible readiness and willingness to move and create momentum and mobilization behind these issues. Many actions are already planned for 2015 to get the story out and to raise awareness, including the Take Climate Action Now efforts.

The challenge remains how to cultivate and harness the necessary urgency and momentum in the face of a myriad of related but also occasionally competing interests, various communications mechanisms, and structural barriers.

Author: Mike Hanley is Senior Director, Communications at the World Economic Forum

Image: Parents walk primary school students to school amid thick haze in Chiping county, Shandong province January 16, 2015. REUTERS/China Daily