What the NRA Can Teach Us About Climate Change Communication

Wide angle shot of people rallying in support of the NRA

By Sara Veltkamp, East Coast Goddess—


I recently spent a month traveling in Vietnam. Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia will notice that the waste management system isn’t great. As a region, Southeast Asia is the biggest contributor to ocean plastics and when you’re on-the-ground, it’s obvious why. On my tour through the Mekong Delta, I saw more plastic and Styrofoam containers floating down the river than boats, and my tour guide had to periodically stop to untwine the plastic bags from the propeller.


But just because it’s less visible, doesn’t mean that countries with more resources for waste management are doing a better job of keeping our planet healthy. We have our own issues with climate-damaging industries, reliance on fossil fuels, and excessive meat-eating.


As I was traveling on buses with time to think, I returned to one question often: How do we persuade people to give up their lifestyles, comforts, and financial gain for a greater social benefit that they may not see or feel?


I don’t have a foolproof answer to this question – otherwise, I’d be doing that thing and not writing this blog. But I have some ideas to get started.


First, repeat after me: you cannot reach everyone. This should be every communicator’s first thought in the morning and last thought before going to bed. Audience definition is critical for every viable business, social good organization, and initiative. Know your audience and target every communication to that highly specific group. Minerva’s clients are probably tired of me referring to Kevin Kelly’s essay on “1,000 True Fans,” but I’ve yet to hear anyone else better articulate the value of targeted communication.


The most difficult thing about deciding who you are going to reach is accepting you will not reach a lot of important people. If your organization is pushing for an extremely progressive climate agenda, including increased financial investment, penalties for environmentally unfriendly behavior, and advocating for mass behavior change around our use of fossil fuels, you are not well-suited to reach climate deniers – no matter how great your video is, how impactful your message, or how compelling your facts.


In truth, you probably won’t reach the average, undecided American with this message because what you are asking of them is too great. Climate-ambivalent people do not give up their lifestyle just because they saw a nice video. While these people are in no way a “lost cause,” if you are an ultra-progressive organization, they are not your audience. Leave these people to a different campaign or tactic and focus on activating those who have the willingness and the drive to make a change. And who knows, perhaps the people you have freed yourself to focus on exclusively will be so motivated that they are able to bring their ambivalent friends and family members along.


As Seth Godin points out in his impactful book, This is Marketing, the NRA has this strategy locked and loaded. With only two percent of the U.S. population in their membership, they effectively control gun policy in the US. How? Money, of course, but they raised this money because they aren’t trying to reach everyone. The NRA knows who their audience is, and they use targeted, on-point messages to reach them and keep them connected. They don’t care if you listen, because they’re not trying to talk to you. We could stand to learn from this dogged focus.


And if you’re thinking, “Pump the breaks, Sara. The NRA uses primitive, fear-mongering tactics to garner support,” I agree with you and also understand that these types of messages tap into deep and powerful human nerves – tribalism, safety, and control.


But humans have other, and I argue more powerful nerves. Most parents would willingly put aside personal safety to save a child. I have wept with joy watching a video of someone I do not know regain a home after being a refugee for years. The negative urges are strong, but so is love, compassion, and hope – and that’s what we need to be selling.


The Narrative Project is a great example of how people working in international development are making the case for optimism and positive messaging in persuasive communication efforts. The core themes like shared values, independence, and partnership evoke hope, belonging, and agency and are exactly the type of information that we need to adapt and use in climate communications.


Resource Media’s partnership with UK-based group Climate Outreach is an excellent resource for creating visual storytelling assets that are more likely to have an impact. In a short video tutorial, Liz Banse from Resource Media and Adam Corner from Climate Outreach detail 10 fundamental principles for using imagery for climate communications using a range of stunning imagery. From highlighting relatable protagonists to incorporating humor or surprise to eliciting emotion without overwhelming, these tips are an excellent resource for anyone looking to make change.


Special bonus for communicators who are part of the Washington Global Health Alliance – Liz Banse will be sharing these insights during July’s Communicators Roundtable. If you work in global health, are based in Washington State, and your organization is not already a member of WGHA, this is as good a reason as any to sign up now!


Communication silver bullets don’t exist, especially when it comes to persuading people to change.  But with long-term efforts, dedication, and ruthless prioritization on the audiences you can reach, your communications around climate change won’t just be a shot in the dark.

About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in Chicago, Illinois and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.