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Communicating the Ocean in a COVID-19 World

How can we communicate about the ocean effectively in a COVID-19 world? It is a question that many members of the Marine CoLABoration, a network of ocean-interested organisations funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, have grappled with since the start of the pandemic. There have been difficult conversations over the need to communicate sensitively, while also protecting the hard-won gains that have been made in recent years and continuing to progress forwards. How can we push for meaningful change, but do so in a way that does not cause harm?

At the Marine CoLAB, we aimed to incorporate a better understanding of the shifting communications landscape into our values-based approach to communication. A values-based approach communicates the value of the ocean in all its diversity, in a way that connects with people’s deeply-held, personal and shared values. It enables us to progress towards an ocean-friendly society by placing these values at the heart of ocean solutions.

To support this approach we have delivered briefings for the global ocean community since the start of April as part of our OneOcean Flotilla initiative, funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. The briefings gather and analyse data on the intersection of ocean, environment and COVID-19 coverage from the traditional and social media, looking at the shifts, patterns and trends in coverage on a weekly basis. These briefings have enabled a research-led, evidence-based approach to communication recommendations.

Many of the findings of these briefings demonstrate the importance of values-centric communication in this period. Three of our key findings are summarised below.

  1. In the lockdown ‘pause’, people reflected on what was important to them

In the initial lockdown stages of the pandemic, during which many people spent extended periods inside their homes, the research indicated a widespread sense of reflection. There was evidence of people re-evaluating what was important to them– whether that be family, health services, time spent on hobbies or access to nature. Communication that gained traction during this period tended to be that which explicitly tapped into those values and shared the same sense of reflection.

  1. Access to nature was closely associated with human wellbeing, and people missed it

The Marine CoLAB has long been a proponent of the mental health and wellbeing benefits that access to the ocean (and nature more generally) can bring. During the lockdown period, access to nature was in some ways severely limited. Social media monitoring picked up a strong theme of conversation around people missing nature, a sense of reminiscence and nostalgia around positive memories associated with the beach, a sense of longing to be able to return to nature again, and general comments on the detrimental effect of not being able to access nature or blue/green space.

At the same time, the research showed that during this period people became increasingly engaged in ways they could access nature from their own homes. During Mental Health Awareness Week, nature soundscapes received considerably more coverage in legacy media than they did in 2019. Online groups emerged dedicated to spotting local wildlife. Citizen science activity appeared to rise. Wildlife-centric attractions such as zoos and aquariums came up with innovative new ways to bring nature into people’s homes and this was highly accessed.

  1. Calls to ‘build back better’ put nature at the heart of economic recovery

As lockdown eased, conversations around ‘building back better’ developed into technical explorations of global economic recovery and the extent to which environmental protection could, or should, be incorporated. It is a debate that exemplifies the power of the values-based approach on both sides of the argument, with industries making arguments for reduced protections by invoking values around the wellbeing of families through jobs and incomes. The OneOcean Flotilla initiative seeks to prevent the decoupling of human and planetary wellbeing by showing that they are inextricably linked – not a mutually exclusive choice.

As marine-focused organisations seek to move forwards in these challenging times, the future is characterised by uncertainty – around economic recovery, around further waves of the virus, around what the world will look like and what the ‘new normal’ means for the series of ocean-relevant events that were scheduled for the 2020 ‘super year’ for nature. This uncertainty makes effective communication a challenge, but the pandemic has shown us that the principles of the values-based approach hold strong. It has shown us that appealing to people’s deeply-held beliefs is effective and enduring. It has also clearly demonstrated the importance of putting resources into understanding the communications environment. As the landscape shifts, so must our communications. To ensure that we are making a positive change (and at the very least, not doing harm), we must make a sustained and consistent effort to understand the conversation we are communicating into.

The Marine CoLABoration is a collaboration of marine-focused and related NGOs working together to put value at the heart of shaping solutions for our ocean. The CoLAB aims to increase collaborative action and explore how to communicate why the ocean matters more effectively.

Natalie Hart is a strategic communications consultant, research adviser and author. She is Communications Lead for the Marine CoLABoration and Senior Analyst for the OneOcean Flotilla.

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