UN Climate Week 2014: The Four Stages of Media Coverage

We have been abuzz with discussions of Climate Week, an event designed to raise awareness for the United Nations Climate Summit. As we read article after article about the effects of global warming on climate change, we realized that we were at a tipping point. We’ve gotten excited before – but something was different this time. From the New York Times to Mashable to The Weather Channel, reporters suddenly seemed to share a commitment to covering the news. In fact, it was the type of coverage that most public relations professionals often dream of.

So how did this happen?

When planning a PR effort, agency experts usually start by mapping out the story we want told. Perhaps our client has developed a new solution to address a problem. Maybe a brand has achieved a major milestone or has overcome a significant challenge. We try to convince reporters that those stories are relevant and worth reporting – but it doesn’t always work out in our favor.

As Climate Week taught us, this traditional model sometimes needs to be flipped on its head. Instead of letting brands drive the agenda, we should look first at what is happening in culture, and then adapt our stories to fit into a larger narrative – one that people are already talking about. In other words, the trick to successful media relations, especially during current events, is all in the timing.

In the case of Climate Week, we saw some standout examples of brands and organizations capitalizing on the unique moment. It all began with a catalyzing event.

The red line represents the phrase “climate march,” while the blue – whose growth is less dramatic, yet more sustained – represents searches for “climate change.” Source: Google Trends.

1. The Catalyst

On September 21, more than 400,000 people descended on the streets of New York City in the People’s Climate March, designed to raise awareness for the serious environmental issues that our planet is facing as a result of global warming. The march was a call-to-action for global leaders, many of whom would meet at the U.N. Climate Summit two days later. It was the largest demonstration of its kind on record, with similar events occurring in 160 countries around the world. And most importantly, it was a sign that people were willing to unite around the topic of climate change.

Cultural relevance? Check.

2. Real-Time Coverage

While reporters must adhere to editorial policies and the standards of their organization, above all, they answer to readers. And in the case of the People’s Climate March, the readers had spoken. During and following the demonstration, we began to see a steady stream of coverage for climate-related issues.

This initial coverage was comprehensive, as many outlets had sent multiple beat reporters to cover the week’s events in real-time. The news was fast and direct, resulting in straightforward headlines and video streams that allowed viewers to watch noteworthy speakers such as Secretary of State John Kerry.

From a communications perspective, the real-time coverage stage might seem like the ideal time to pounce on reporters with a client-relevant pitch. And it’s worth pointing out that walking the walk is a sure-fire way to own the discussion. Throughout the week, many brands stepped up to the plate with specific climate-related commitments, and that got the media’s attention. For example, two-dozen companies made pledges to stop deforestation, while oil and gas leaders forged a partnership with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. IKEA and Mars set the goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Tim Cook of Apple was quoted extensively for his speech, during which he stated that “the time for inaction has passed.”

But unless your brand is directly tied to the events of the day, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to attract attention amidst hectic deadlines and action-packed schedules. The next phase holds greater promise for unique storytelling.

3. Niche Stories

As time progresses, reporters begin to look for niche angles. By Wednesday, people already knew that Climate Week was happening – now they wanted to experience the story in new ways. Here are a few examples:

  • Going local: The Lafayette Journal & Courier in Indiana told the story of how Midwesterners were taking climate change into their own hands, without waiting for policymakers to act.
  • Experimenting with story formats: In keeping with their digital approach, Mashable published an interactive map of the world detailing each country’s commitment to addressing climate change.
  • Applying a gender-based lens: Reuters wrote about Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, who said that females are “bearing the brunt of climate change.”
  • Exploring the other side of the story: VICE, a popular media site appealing to millennials, took a controversial approach, calling the march a fangless gathering.

This phase presents a better opportunity to insert your brand into the conversation, because reporters will be looking for new ways to keep their content fresh. Reaching out with a helpful resource, a telling data point or a unique outlook will help them meet this challenge.

4. Summing It Up

As Climate Week drew to a close, journalists began looking back on the events that had unfolded throughout the week. This phase of coverage is an excellent opportunity for a brand to offer a subject matter expert. Look for someone within your organization (or even an influencer in your network) who has an educated and interesting viewpoint, and who can draw on his or her experiences to comment meaningfully on the situation.

The takeaway? When capitalizing on a specific moment or cultural trend, learn to prioritize your audience first – and let your brand take a back seat. This is the smartest and most sure-fire route to securing coverage, especially during a media-saturated event like Climate Week. Remember, being mentioned in a thoughtful way as part of a larger relevant story is a credible win for any client.


OgilvyEarth is the sustainability practice of Ogilvy Public Relations. To be successful in the 21st century, we believe that companies must take responsibility for their impact on the world. Our comprehensive communications approach helps them get there. To learn more, visit http://www.ogilvyearth.com/

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