Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? – GRIST interview with David Fenton

Originally appeared in grist.org on March 12, 2014

For over three decades, David Fenton has played an unusual role in the environmental movement: marketing it. The company he founded, Fenton Communications, has worked with everyone from Nelson Mandela to MoveOn.org. It recently managed an  an anti-fracking campaign for Yoko Ono (fracking, it promised, would ruin New York’s groundwater, and therefore its bagels and pizza).

To many environmentalists, what Fenton does — with all the celebrity chefs and celebrities, period — is … a little bit simplistic. To his opponents, he’s the Great Satan. If you find an article about him online, it’s probably a hit piece.

“People working in the nonprofit world sometimes have trouble adopting a marketing mindset,” Fenton Communications wrote in a 2009 report.  “But in the end, the goal is for people to ‘buy’ our ideas — ideas for a better world.”

Fenton recently talked with me over the phone about why he avoids the words “planet” and “Earth,” why millennials are perfectly justified in abandoning the word “environmentalist,” and more.

Q. So you started out as a photographer, and later as a PR person for Rolling Stone. What was your first environmental campaign?

A. The No Nukes concert in 1979 with Bruce Springsteen. Thirty-five years ago. Five nights of concerts in Madison Square Garden, plus an album and a motion picture. It definitely helped mobilize popular culture against nuclear power in that era.

That’s one thing the environmental movement still doesn’t do — use popular culture. There are moments, but systematically, the environmental movement tends to be at the institutional level — academics and lawyers and scientists and policy people. Popular culture as a means of communication is not in their DNA.

Really, communications, period, is not in their DNA. If you look at the budgets of environmental groups, only teeny tiny portions are spent on communications. And if you remove the portions spent on building membership and fundraising, it’s even less. It’s better than it was. When I started, environmental groups barely had press secretaries. They certainly have that now.

The other thing is that the foundations that support environmental groups don’t tend to value communications, either. And then I think there’s a deeper issue. George Lakoff, the linguist, talks about this. People who come from the humanities and science, they have a view that if you present the facts quietly to people in power, they will make rational judgements and people will change. And it’s not true. The people on the other side, who go to business school, they understand how the brain really works and how public opinion really works. So they’re talking about values and moral narratives and imagery. They’re good at it. So it’s an out of balance situation.

Read the full article and interview