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How comms can help tackle the environmental crisis: takeaways from #CommsCreateChange

20 May 2022

The idea of #CommsCreateChange is all about bringing the sector together to think about how comms can help tackle the environmental crisis. The crisis is already impacting many aspects of our lives, from the quality of the air we breathe, to food and water insecurity, and rising energy bills. The environmental crisis will impact every charity and every person they exist to serve and support, no matter the charity purpose.

But what role should charities play? In order for charities to achieve their charitable objectives and create the fairer society that charities ultimately work towards, we as communicators need to address the environmental crisis. It’s a global issue which will require the sector to show leadership and collaborate together in order to drive change. So where can we start?

The role communicators can play

Charity communicators have both the privilege and the challenge of helping those affected by major social issues every day. In the words of Sir David Attenborough: “saving the planet is now a communications challenge.” Charity communicators have a vital role to play in communicating the environmental crisis, regardless of charity purpose. The way that we as communicators talk about the environmental crisis affects the way people engage, think and respond to the problems and solutions. Our communications can determine if people switch off or feel compelled to act.

This means how we tell climate and environmental stories matters as much as whether we tell them at all. As charity communicators, we need to push for narrative change around topics like the environmental crisis. It’s our responsibility to draw out the intersectionality of the crisis, showing that the environmental crisis affects everyone and all charities. Once you’ve put this thinking at the heart of comms, it can inspire real change.

It can feel difficult to know where to start. But the important thing is that you make a start. Here are some tips from our #CommsCreateChange conference to help you on your journey:

Put planet health at the heart of your brand

Collette Philip, founder, Brand by Me, shared how putting planet health at the heart of your brand can be powerful, but transparency is vital. Linking the health of our planet and environmental action to the core of who you are and what you stand for as an organisation is important. Charities need to embed environmental responsibilities within their organisational values, connecting it to their mission and purpose, and setting out what this means for the brand.

Messaging is important, but it goes beyond this too. Organisations need to be willing to talk about how they’re going to show up, what they’re doing, and ultimately be held accountable to this. Use your brand to hold your organisation accountable, and be sure to embed this into your brand framework, core copy, and assessment measures too.

Recognising intersectionality

Intersectionality is the concept that all oppression is linked, and charities need to recognise and showcase examples of intersectionality in their environmental comms. Environmental issues intersect with a wide variety of social justice issues including poverty and homelessness, health and welfare, and women’s rights among others. According to Muireann Montague, senior campaigns officer at NCVO, it’s important to recognise that the environmental crisis is already having a greater impact on certain communities, and it’s widening existing social issues too. Tapping into those intersectionalities in your comms can help drive change.

Framing matters

Nicky Hawkins, director of communications at On Road Media shared tips on framing for change. People already know that there is a climate emergency, and our comms need to do more than just tell us that there is a problem. People care, but can struggle to see big picture solutions, as so often the comms focus merely on what people can do as individuals (think recycling).

We’re increasingly fatalistic as a society, with 75% of young people in the UK reporting that they think the future is frightening. The good news is that we know there is a problem. The bad news is that as a society we don’t know how to fix it and we don’t believe that we can. Narratives and framing are key to overcoming this crisis of confidence, as is inviting people to be part of the solution. Nicky recommends three ways to talk about issues to create change:

Balance urgency and agency – make things doable, and use ‘can do’ framing like this:

  • We can change this
  • We can improve this
  • This is within our reach
  • This is doable

Show, don’t tell – climate change will not be stopped by small consumer changes alone.

Normalise change without telling people what to do. Organisations should shift their own practices and talk about what they’re doing, speaking positively about the steps they’re taking, but not preaching.

Invite everyone in – Don’t use comms to judge and exclude people.

Visuals matter too

Léane de Laigue, communications lead at Climate Outreach explained why visuals matter when communicating the environmental crisis. For many of us, how we understand the world is dominated by what we see and how it makes us feel. As communicators, we want our messages to have impact and engage people. Evidenced based climate communications can help messages be more effective with audiences.

It’s important to interrogate the images we’re using in our environmental communications – are we overusing images that close down the climate story, rather than opening it up to new and diverse interpretations? Are we showing what climate change looks like to people around the world? Using imagery that resonates with lived experience and shows what climate impacts actually look like to real people is vital.

Climate Outreach has seven principles for visual climate change comms, and Léane shared four of those tips with us:

  1. Tell new stories
  2. Show real people
  3. Be careful with protest imagery – protest isn’t everyone’s way of getting involved, and it can reinforce stereotypes of left-leaning protestors. It can be effective, however, if showing authentic groups with no agenda like children, Indigenous people, farmers, etc.
  4. Diversity in images of people in nature is important – nature is a key gateway to get people to care about climate change. Images only showing a narrow set of people and activities in nature reinforces barriers to people accessing the natural environment. Communicators need to show that different people can engage with climate change.

Want to learn more?

Keep an eye out for this event on-demand soon, but in the meantime, check out these great resources:  

Banner Image: Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

We have collated all the #CommsCreateChange Twitter action below!

Vanessa Weddell

head of events, CharityComms

Vanessa is passionate about fostering community engagement through events, and joined CharityComms in June 2019 to lead the events team. As Head of events she taps into CharityComms' membership network to share best practice from across the sector, and supports members with relevant and practical event content.