Blog PostsMedia & PsychologyMedia Issues & PoliticsGreta Thunberg — the Swedish PR phenomenon

Greta Thunberg — the Swedish PR phenomenon

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg sure has had an almost impossible impact on the global media stage. Why is she such a PR phenomenon?

Why does the news media favor Thunberg over science?

Your message must work with media logic, not against it. Real arguments (factualness, balance, complexity etc.) matters little to nothing if your message contradicts the inner workings of the media.

For sure, the reporting is unbalanced when a young social media natural with a such a basic message (“We could do more for our environment!”) is awarded with an immensely powerful media platform. However, this is merely the logical outcome of how media works; many of Greta Thunberg’s critics would have some relevant counter-arguments — if only they aimed their harsh words against the media logic itself.

So, how does Greta Thunberg’s campaign play into media logic?

  • Underdog position — A young person like Greta Thunberg can’t possible be blamed for arguing from a position of power. And the underdog is often favored by the news media.
  • Simplified message — “Take action now, or we’ll all die.” While climate change is complex, the news media will favor an easy-to-tell story. When amplified by an angry young woman delivering a tearful speech in broken English to the United Nations, the message is perfectly packaged for the media.
  • Victimhood — By emphasising her youth and her disability, Greta Thunberg paints herself as an innocent victim by the cruelty of the grownup world.
  • Strong enemies (conflict) — As per the conversion theory, and as discussed above, there has been no shortage of loud groups condemning Greta Thunberg and everything she stands for. Polarisation is often a cornerstone of media logic.
  • Identity politics — Greta Thunberg being a young woman with a cognitive disability playing the part of the victim who has been robbed of her future will fuel both sides of the isle; those who want to enforce left-leaning legislations and those who want to protect right-wing freedoms.
  • Inspiring follower actions — Greta Thunberg’s campaign is rather easy for people to endorse; all they have to do is take to the streets and journalists will be sure to follow and report.

What is the psychology behind Thunberg’s public enemies?

Timing is everything in public relations; there has to be a substantial anti-movement ready to explode for your message to gain traction and to create a fierce divide. Pick strong enemies and loud critics.

The fact that Greta Thunberg evokes passionate resistance only serves as igniter fluid for her personal PR crusade. Her public relations strategy strikes at the central nervous systems of several angry online publics:

  • The Confused — We have those who dislike unfair and unbalanced media reporting, but are unable to distinguish systematic media behaviour from those who are being put in the spotlight by these mechanisms.
  • The Paranoid — We have those who distrust the purity of Greta Thunberg’s intentions and who worry that her campaign is professionally staged and used as a way to brainwash the population.
  • The Ideologists — We have those who thinks that her struggle is a privileged expression of identity politics; they argue that the climate issue is hijacked by the political left and used to enforce a stronger state.
  • The Resistant — We have those who believe that the climate issue is overstated and that alarmists aren’t doing our society any favours at all.
  • The Concerned — And, we have those who thinks that the grown-up world is taking advantage of a somewhat naive (and a little bit annoying) child. They see Greta Thunberg as being a victim of various grown-up agendas.
  • The Knights — This group finds it sad that we have to rely on the voices of our children instead of science to enforce much needed change in our society.

From a public relations perspective, few of these angry publics are fighting from a strong position. The climate issue has become the focal point of the Moral War. Amongst the various angry publics listed above, only The Knights are arguing from a strong and rational position. However, they’re often bundled in (via guilt-by-association) with the rest of them which makes them substantially weaker.

In short: From a public relations perspective, Greta Thunberg has a perfect set of public enemies to fuel her campaign.

But, is it okay for Greta Thunberg to skip school to protest?

The key to using civil disobedience as a public relations tool is to stand your ground firmly while accepting any legal ramifications with your head held up high and without complaining.

It’s safe to say that personally I salute my fellow Swede Greta Thunberg for skipping school to fight for something she believes in. My personal passion for cutting classes aside, Thunberg surely did managed the consequences elegantly. She just made sure to get real good grades. I don’t know exactly just how many classes Thunberg skipped, but it sure didn’t hurt her grades:

“She got these excellent grades despite being absent from class far more than most of her followers: As the leader of a movement, an international celebrity, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she traveled extensively during her last school year.”
Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg News

As in many countries, schooling is mandatory in Sweden. So, staying away from school without permission is to be regarded as civil disobedience. From a PR perspective, defying rules and regulations are powerful tools — but they shouldn’t be used lightly as they can easily backfire.

What kind of PR impact — if any — is she responsible for?

In public relations, we know better than to underestimate the power of public opinion. It’s pressure can be felt in all layers of society.

If they wanted to, the scientific community at large could try and discredit Thunberg’s campaign arguing that science is a bit more complex and that we can’t rely on sweeping statements about a certain future. But they haven’t. If anything, they’re trying to ride the wave of media attention she’s been stirring up. (If anything, this illustrates just how badly the climate debate needs a new narrative.)

We’ll be sure to see that Thunberg’s campaign to save our planet will have direct consequences on large portions of the human populations who are made acutely more aware of the climate issue. While many may have various reservations, Thunberg has been instrumental in skyrocketing the climate debate higher on the global agenda. It’s difficult to discern how many she has inspired to do their part for our environment, and even harder to calculate what effect this general public pressure will have, but we can rest assure that Thunberg’s part in all of this has been substantial.

And, what do we have to loose if Thunberg (and the scientific community) is dead wrong? Taking better care of our planet sure sounds like the right thing to do, regardless of how urgent it actually is. Sure, there are risks that the debate will be used by various political interests to further their agendas, but this is hardly something we can blame Thunberg for.

Still, Thunberg might be winning the moral war, but is she making a real difference for the actual climate? Only our mutual future (or lack thereof) will tell. For now, I sure do admire anyone who dares to face devastating online hatred for a personal conviction.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

Subscribe to get notified of new blog posts & courses

🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

What to read next

Social objects matter in PR — getting people to talk with each other about strategically chosen topics is a cornerstone in modern PR.

Featured posts

Most popular