One of the reasons most of the world has heard about July’s climate change summit at the Vatican is because Eastern Mennonite University alumnus Michael Shank, MA ’05 (conflict transformation), was the media consultant for the event. Shank managed press releases, acted as a liaison between the pontifical and media outlets, and developed media content. The task was immense – the summit was attended by 60 mayors from around the world and organized within a month – but one Shank was well equipped to handle.
Shank, director of media strategy at the non-profit Climate Nexus, developed a grassroots strategy in partnership with the Vatican and Jeff Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The summit invited local leaders to help convey the urgency of the climate change issue to the broader public.
Mayors “offer an immediacy when it comes to building faith and hope in our ability to tackle climate change,” Shank said.
The two-day summit and Vatican visit resulted in the signing of a declaration stating the existence of climate change and pledging to put pressure on world leaders to protect the “poor and the vulnerable from ongoing climate change that gravely endangers their lives.” The visit also empowered the leaders to begin making changes toward sustainability in their own communities and provided a forum for the mayors to put pressure on the world leaders who will meet this fall at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris.
Non-profit promotes awareness of climate change
July’s climate summit was not the first time Shank has acted as a media consultant for the Vatican. He also helped with press coverage for the April 28 meeting between United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis and other world leaders to discuss climate change and sustainable development.
“We were able to garner a fair amount of press” for that event, Shank said. “Based on the relationship I built with the Vatican then – they were very satisfied with the press we produced – they asked me to return for the mayor’s summit at the Vatican.”
The “we” that Shank refers to is the organization Climate Nexus, for which Shank works as director of media strategy. The non-profit is “dedicated to changing the conversation around climate change and clean energy solutions in the United States,” according to the website. This goal is accomplished by helping organizations manage communications and broaden their networking platform.
“We work with a range of clients,” Shank said. “What’s unique about us is that we are pro bono. Our clients include everyone from business orgs like We Mean Business and the B Team to the Pope, the U.N., the Lancet Journal and the Coast Guard.”
Such varying clients, from coalitions of business owners (We Mean Business and B Team) to world governing organizations, U.S. military branches and a renowned medical journal, suggests the broad nature of concern about climate change.
Bringing the issue home
Shank said the role of Climate Nexus is to help structure the narrative that a client wants to tell, which he does by working with press ahead of an event to make sure reporters have all the information they need. Before July’s summit, he orchestrated a “daily drumbeat of information to reporters. I started a week or two in advance doing daily updates with new information and began working with mayors’ offices to get stories out locally so that there was sufficient press buzz before the event took place.”
In this case, he wanted the public to feel connected to what was happening abroad through their local representative. Framing the story with a headline such as “Small Town Mayor Goes to the Vatican to Talk About Climate Change” helped bring the issue closer to home for many Americans.
He did his job well: a final tally of press coverage included local, national and international sources. A Google news search of “climate change summit Vatican 2015” yields more than 1,200 hits.
Shank’s success is not surprising. Over the past 20 years, he has developed an expertise in economic, energy and environmental policy through positions at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, as a staff member with Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), and as a columnist for a variety of national publications. In addition to his master’s in conflict transformation from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Shank has earned a PhD from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Shank’s education, experience and interests are well suited to this work behind the scenes. He said Climate Nexus has done a good job when an event has been well covered, but no one knows the consultants were there. The most rewarding part of working with the Vatican this summer, though, was “witnessing a historic moment. [The summit] transformed the conversation in the mayors’ cities and provided an essential stepping-stone in the fight for a better environment.”