How to Make Messages Stick and Mobilize People to Take Action: Global Commons Dinner at the National Academy of Sciences

On October 12, Gary Knell had the pleasure of speaking at the Global Commons Dinner held in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences. He began by acknowledging two influential National Geographic Explorers who also took part in the gathering, Tom Lovejoy and Sylvia Earle, each explorer earning hearty applause. Tom has devoted his life to helping us better understand the Amazon Rainforest and Sylvia has shown us why it is vital for us to save our oceans. He spoke to National Geographic’s presence at IUCN Word Conservation Congress and how it was a real privilege to be among leading conservation organizations.


Our very existence depends on a healthy, balanced, and sustainable planet. He emphasized that we must act urgently and aggressively to ensure our future. But, in order to mobilize people to act and to change we must create messages that stick. He recalled three examples of global movements for change, beginning with litter. People would commonly throw trash out of their car windows until Lyndon Johnson became President. The First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, made “highway beautification” her cause.

Lady Bird Johnson – who was the first woman to serve on the Board of Trustees of the National Geographic Society – used her position as First Lady to convince her husband to pass the Highway Beautification Act in 1965. Having her as the face of this effort and publicly voicing her support for anti-littering efforts made people pay attention. Her efforts also sparked additional clean-up efforts such as the “Dont Mess With Texas” campaign which is estimated to have reduced litter on Texas highways by 72% between 1986 and 1990. Litter reduction is an example of how the efforts of one woman sparked a national movement.


His second example was the seat belt movement going from option equipment in the 1950s to standard and now mandatory equipment in vehicles. The movement began when the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Transportartion launched a seat belt education campaign featuring two crash test dummies that dramatized what could happen when you don’t wear a seat belt. The dummies were eventually turned into toys, appealing to children. Seat belt requirements are an example of how visual storytelling can change the world.

His third example was one he was personally connected to during his time leading Sesame Workshop. In 2002, they introduced a character on the South African Production of Sesame Street named Kami. Kami is 5 years old, lost her mother to AIDS and is HIV positive. She was created to help kids – many of which were orphans themselves – deal with loss. Kami’s job was to promote tolerance and reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, which was critical at that time when 1 in 9 kids in South Africa were infected. Kami is now a global figure in HIV awareness campaigns showing that education is essential – not just for kids but also for the general public. Messages have to be memorable and compelling to stick with us.

Gary then addressed National Geographic’s collaboration with 21st Century Fox to uniquely position us to be the voice of our global commons – and mobilize people to act. Under this arrangement we now have an integrated media megaphone featuring series like Years of Living Dangerously and Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, Before the Flood – both of which address climate change issues. Revenue from our new business model provides an ongoing source of funding for scientists, researchers, conservationists, storytellers, educators, and photographers to do more than ever before. We are supporting science and exploration, and sharing these stories to inspire action. It is not just about what National Geographic does, but what we empower people to do – and what we can do together. The need to come together around our global commons is urgent.