A visual revelation for Power Past Coal

March 3, 2013

It was the spring of 2011. Resource Media was working with the Power Past Coal campaign to block the global export of Powder River Basin coal from ports in the Pacific Northwest. The Power Past Coal campaign knew why they wanted to block coal exports, but weren’t sure the same reasons would resonate with people in small port communities. The only thing we at Resource Media were sure about at the start of the campaign was that the mindset of people in the smaller port communities was likely to be different than that of people in Seattle and Portland, so we would need to conduct research at the outset to identify a message that resonated with folks.

Resource Media worked with FM3 on a set of focus groups on the issue of coal export out of Longview, Washington. What happened next offers a powerful example of the impact that effective images can have on an issue campaign and what you could miss out on if you leave them off the table. A majority of focus group participants initially supported the proposal to export coal from Longview because of the promise of jobs and their impression that the process of moving and storing coal would be a clean, high-tech process, with enclosed coal trains and modern, sealed terminal facilities. As they learned more about the details of the proposal through the discussion with the focus group moderator, their support for coal export waned considerably.

Yet it was seeing photos of open rail cars and billowing coal dust, not the messages we tested, that really drove the impacts home and caused some people to switch sides. As public opinion researcher Dave Metz wrote after the focus groups, “It is impossible to overstate how effective these images were in building opposition to the project.”

The Power Past Coal campaign had been focused on their messaging dilemma: Do we talk about the larger bogeyman of climate change and few local benefits, or do we talk about the local impacts of having coal trains rumbling through and coal dust? Like many of us, they were trained to test words, words, words, knowing that often the target audiences for our work “don’t think like us.” Rarely do people test visuals during focus groups or other forms of opinion research, however. Time and again, Resource Media has heard from partners that they will fastidiously test messages and then just choose “matching photos” afterwards, or use their gut instinct for photo selection. We know not to trust our guts on messaging, so why do so with photos?

In this case, by testing pictures as well as messages, we discovered that the images transformed the locals’ initial perceptions in ways that the written messages we tested simply couldn’t. We knew that trains transporting coal elsewhere were open because of the prohibitive costs of covering the rail cars and our campaign assumed Longview residents would also picture them as such and would worry about dust blowing off the rail cars as they passed through town. However, residents thought the rail cars would be covered as part of a clean and high-tech process and thus were not thinking about health impacts.

When they saw the photos we showed them, they had an emotional reaction and a significant number of them changed their position in the middle of the focus groups. The photos of “fugitive dust” from coal facilities elsewhere covering plants further drove the message home. By testing and then using photos that undid faulty assumptions and showed the real story, the Power Past Coal campaign generated solid strategies for swaying more local residents with a message and visual double-punch that effectively framed the issue favorably for them.

More than a year has passed since those first focus groups. During this time, the Power Past Coal campaign has galvanized many more supporters, including people who have never before been a part of a “campaign.” One volunteer wrote, “imagery is king” in this effort. Another went much further to say, “What the images do is deliver a large amount of truth in a very compact way – a moment of clarity. Naturally, the arrival of so much truth all at once creates a vivid and memorable emotional response. Moments of clarity are the tipping points that determine how people later make decisions about a topic. Once someone realizes, for instance, that the proposed project is morally wrong, then they will tend to process other information based on that realization.”

Liz Banse