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More science, less PR in climate change message

Crikey readers talk unemployment and why PR flacks should not be the ones selling climate change.

The unemployment data that matters

Robert Johnson writes: Re. “The real unemployment figures” (Friday). Marcus L’Estrange’s comment concerning the limitations and perils of labour force data has been largely valid as far back as I can remember. During the 1980s, I was head of employment policy units in two state governments (consecutively, not concurrently!), and unemployment data were produced periodically by the ABS, the Commonwealth Employment Service (people registered for work) and the Department of Social Security (people receiving unemployment benefits).

As then, the challenge is less about rates of unemployment — given methodological and definitional issues and the tendency for subjective cherry-picking by politicians of the “best” data source — than with trends for whichever data source is used.  This still remains problematic, given the need to consider jobless data against, for example, participation rates: a falling unemployment rate may indicate labour force withdrawal as people give up on their job prospects as much as a labour market recovery.

Although labour force data analysis is hardly, as L’Estrange claims, a waste of time, it does need to be attuned to, as he points out, changes in data definitions by the government that aim to be self-serving or obscurantist. To the extent that such data are (as he quotes) “misleading”, the question is of the extent to which articles like that by Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer are successful in illuminating the reader, which is what they have arguably sought to do.

We do not need Crikey to abandon this minefield and leave it to government ministers and the mainstream media.

What do spinners know about climate change?

John Boyd writes: Re. “From the brains behind Rhonda and Kevin07, how to sell climate change” (Tuesday). The more I re-read the input from those professional spin doctors, the more angry I get. Who do they think they are? And to whom do they think they are talking? Their basic message is to keep scientists out of the business of trying to communicate about the situation, and leave it to the professional PR fraternity.

Buzz phrases abound like “think outside the square”. What does that really mean? Tom Russell suggests that a campaign like the anti-speeding little pinkie effort would be clever. The problem here is that both the symbolism of the pinkie and the problem of speeding were well understood, whereas Russell and the rest are loudly telling us that neither condition applies to the issue of climate change. As if we need them to tell us that!

Some of the rhetoric from these guys is just offensive. Phrases like “gleeful fear mongering and panic …”, “… dire warnings about extinctions, bushfire and rainstorms” come straight out of the denier lexicon, as if someone just made them up to frighten people. However, prominent scientists like Will Steffen (ANU) and David Karoly (Melbourne University) have been doing a great job of explaining in measured terms what climate change is and its implications, such as warnings about the increasing frequency of droughts, heatwaves and extreme fire weather, which are clear examples of “… how climate change affects ‘me and my children’”, as we are exhorted to explain by Russell. And I thought there is a perfectly respectable “not left-leaning” spokesman in Ross Garnaut, out there promoting the idea that climate change is a real problem that we need to address seriously.

Spin”, by definition, is making something look like something it is not! Into what to they propose we convert climate change science? You might be able to spin “Direct Action” to make people believe that it will enable Australia to meet its carbon dioxide emissions reduction target, basically by “being economical with the truth”. But the climate change message is a robust scientific product, and you cannot just leave out the bits that make you feel uncomfortable, as our PR experts routinely do with, say, cornflakes: sold on the basis of its supposed health benefits, while just omitting the bit about the deleterious effects of the high sugar content.

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  • 1
    Malcolm Harrison
    Posted Monday, 14 April 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    john boyd simply does not understand this problem, but he has a firm conviction that he does. he thereby demonstrates the great difficulty we have in communicating the necessary message in an environment that has been polluted by spin and exaggeration on both sides of the question.
    his distaste in using the advice of professional communicators such as ad agencies is misplaced. the science, being incomplete, can only go so far. The data needs interpreting and evaluating. this is not a job for scientists per se, though of course they are entitled to participate.

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 15 April 2014 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Good point Robert. Perhaps it’s be a bit wonky, but I’d be grateful for a discussion of definitions of unemployment, how they have changed, and Australia’s compared to standard international definitions.

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