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Greta Thunberg: A great communicator of our time

Greta Thunberg-fever hit Bristol today. The poster girl for climate change did a speech, led a march of 25,000 striking school kids around the city and got the masses chanting her name. The eyes of the world’s media were on her. Brands lined up to jump on the bandwagon (nice one, Friska) and despite the inevitable cynicism from a few, there’s no doubt the cause – climate action – was heard loud and clear.

Greta has become shorthand for environmental awareness. ‘What would Greta say?’ passes our lips each time we consider buying a single use plastic bottle of water or takeaway coffee in a disposable cup. Regardless of your views on whether it’s right for children to take a day off school to protest, Greta has made an impact and made us all think about our individual environmental footprint.

She’s undeniably one of the great communicators of our time and is living proof that powerful communications can change the world (or at least start to). So how has she done it?

  1. She breaks the mould of a typical ‘media spokesperson’

Greta caught the public imagination because she was a school girl taking extreme action. She’s the antithesis of a middle aged white man in a suit. There have been plenty of climate change activists before her making the same points who haven’t captured the world’s attention. Social media and today’s hunger for authenticity have no doubt helped her along.

Professor Massimiano Bucchi hits the nail on the head: “In traditional media contexts, certified competence and celebrity were key elements for establishing the authority and appeal of public figures (Nobel laureates, particularly in some cases, combined both at the highest level). In social media communication, authenticity is regarded as one of the central elements, as testified by the success of young bloggers and YouTubers who provide science related content with their enthusiasm and spontaneity. These are figures that viewers perceive as more accessible and approachable than an established expert.“

  • She’s not afraid of emotion

Her impassioned speech at the UN summit last year – tears in eyes, fingers angrily pointed, shouting ‘How dare you’ – cut through because it was raw. Human nature makes it hard to ignore that.

This wasn’t a dry list of stats from a climate scientist. She’s said her Asperger’s is a superpower that helps her see the world in stark terms and shields her from hurtful comments from her critics. She speaks clearly and succinctly and chooses powerful words deliberately. It makes perfect soundbite material.

  • She’s selective over media opportunities

The world and his wife wants a piece of Greta, and there’s no doubt she’ll be batting off media interview requests daily.

She’s more likely to use Twitter to make the bold statements that then translate into news headlines. But the media interviews she has selected have been well selected and impactful. The joint interview with David Attenborough on Radio 4 last year (more of a love-in than hard hitting interview) aligned her with another national hero, her brand feeding off his and vice versa.

She’s been at the big ticket world events – most recently clashing with Donald Trump at Davos – but the trips to Bristol and Oxford this week have made her still feel accessible, even if the TV crews only manage to capture her from afar.

Whether you were marching with Greta in Bristol today or like me, observing the media circus unfold from the dry comfort of the office, there’s no doubt that it has got us all talking about the Greta effect and what we can learn from her as professional communicators.

Seeing her on stage at College Green, dwarfed by the stewards, yellow anorak on, glancing down at her phone for prompts during her 5 minute speech, she doesn’t immediately fit the stereotype of global superstar. But there’s something refreshing about that.

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