Communicating for change

6th December 2016


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  • Management ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Stakeholder engagement ,
  • Skills ,
  • CPD


Helen Coulthard-Smedley

Sarah Welfare explores effective ways to convey your message and convince stakeholders to act

No matter how knowledgeable or technically competent an environment or sustainability professional is, they will make little progress in influencing the big policy, spending and business decisions if they lack the communication skills to explain why businesses need to act.

Engaging and influencing is a fundamental to a practitioner’s role as a change agent, which is why IEMA has put communication skills and relationship development at the heart of its new skills map for members ( Environment and sustainability practitioners need to be aware of the principles, tools and techniques that can help them influence change.

Know your audience

‘Great campaigns start from where your audience is, not where you wish they were,’ says consultancy Britain Thinks. Whether trying to bring on board finance colleagues or launch an all-employee initiative, practitioners need to understand their stakeholders’ perspectives. As Leigh Tymms AIEMA, director at communications agency Clarity Sustainability, says: ‘The most important thing we can do is to put ourselves in the shoes of the “customer”, whether they are a client, supply chain partner, employee or business leader.’

It is important to do the research and listen to your specific audience rather than make assumptions. For instance, it is now common to segment markets using generational groups such as millennials (people reaching adulthood around the year 2000).

However, Ryan Holmes, the chief executive of social media platform Hootsuite, questions such assumptions in a blog for the networking website LinkedIn. He points out that so-called millennial traits, from being digital savvy to a desire for collaboration and transparency, are shared by a much wider, non-age-related spectrum of the population. ‘The digital transformation – and all the cultural changes that have accompanied this upswing in connectivity – has cut across traditional demographics,’ he writes.

The right language

Whether trying to influence the executive leaders or the cleaners at your organisation, effective communication involves clear, jargon-free language to communicate the same message in different ways, depending on the audience.

The language of environmental management is unlikely to resonate in most organisations. Instead it is likely to be the language of the business that matters most, especially when attempting to influence senior management. As Tymms says: ‘In order to influence and move sustainability to a core pillar of the business, sustainability teams need to be influencing conversations about brand, products, innovation or productivity.’

Iain Bundred, managing director of corporate for the EMEA region at Ogilvy Public Relations, says companies are increasingly recognising the value of building emotional connections with stakeholders and customers. ‘Environmentalists who can set out the business value of sustainability are making connections every day with hard-headed corporates, helping them make their businesses more focused on long-term success,’ he says.

‘We need more of this. As more companies seek to put real purpose at the heart of their business strategy, those advisers who can translate the intricacies of ISO accreditations and data security into commercial and societal value are the ones who will deliver real change.’

Tailoring information to the many levels of understanding in your organisation, stakeholders or supply chain is also important. ‘The key thing is being understood,’ says sustainability communications consultant Emma Young. ‘Any large organisation will have a very wide spectrum of understanding of environmental issues – from those who read scientific journals at breakfast to those for whom this is completely new.’

Another key point is to speak with a voice that is authentic to your organisation and its practices. PR or internal communications that sound very different from what an organisation says or does on a day-to-day basis are likely to run into problems.

The best practice guidelines on environmental sustainability communications published by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations point out the power of honesty and authenticity in communications around environmental issues. It advises: ‘Environmental sustainability communications tend to only highlight the successes. Don’t be afraid to talk about the challenges in other areas to provide context and that you recognise that this is a journey for your organisation and there is still much to do.’

Engage – do not broadcast

One of the criteria for meeting the communication requirement of the skills map at IEMA operational practitioner level (PIEMA) is to understand meaningful engagement, as well as grasping the difference between informing, consulting and engaging. The top-down, message-broadcasting approach of the past is not just ineffective, but is undermined by the two-way communication and conversations to which the digital revolution has opened the door.

Successful employee engagement can deliver for organisations on multiple fronts, with the potential for the benefits of a more highly engaged workforce to contribute to sustainability as much as direct benefits to the organisation and environment. At Elan Hair Design, a finalist in this year’s Business in the Community awards, employee engagement was critical to transforming the salon through investing in new technology and devising new waste management systems. Staff were involved in devising solutions and green suggestion cards were introduced to gather ideas.

Nadine Exter, of Cranfield School of Management’s Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, believes an understanding of the organisational context for employee engagement is crucial. This must cover the nature of employee motivation, commitment, trust and co-operation, she says in her guide, Engaging Employees in Corporate Responsibility (

In the guide, Exter advises a close examination of the barriers to employee engagement and action, which may be deeply rooted in the organisation’s culture. Practices to look out for are silo working or a ‘heads down’ culture, which typically ignores what is happening in other parts of the organisation. But the enablers and leadership support must be identified too. Such scrutiny can inform the planning of tactics, from forums and workshops to mobilising middle managers.

Of course, active engagement is key to taking messages to an external audience too. Tymms gives the example of a media launch of an environmentally friendly product when the company’s core message may be ‘look what we’ve done’. In this case, the public’s reaction is likely to be ‘who cares?’.

In contrast, his guide, Sustainability Communications in a Nutshell, highlights Ariel washing powder’s ‘turn to 30’ campaign, which helped to educate consumers by showing them that they could still attain good results using a lower temperature while reducing their energy bills. The campaign resulted in around one million UK consumers changing their behaviour and saving 60,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Other approaches to interactive communication might include involving employees in environmental reporting or asking customers to help find a solution to a particular problem, using social media or online communities. ‘Empowering stakeholders in this way can lead to added benefits, such as brand advocacy, increased trust or customer retention,’ Tymms says.

Personal appeal

One message that repeatedly emerges from both internal and external stakeholder campaigns on environment and sustainability issues is the importance of devising a personal and compelling reason to take action.

As Clarity Sustainability’s guide says: ‘Whether you are launching an internal recycling programme or convincing prospects to buy your latest gizmo, the “what’s in it for me?” question will always, in some form, be at the forefront of our audience’s minds.’

What is more, although the issues and evidence that sustainability practitioners need to convey may have a long-term time frame, Tymms suggests that core messages must be close enough to the stakeholder ‘geographically, topically or in duration’ to resonate.

When thinking about the long-term objectives of a particular campaign or communication, it helps to identify much shorter-term calls to action too.

Science and communications

Any discipline that involves communicating messages rooted in scientific or technical evidence has the challenge of communicating highly complex information in a way that people can understand.

However, a report last year from sustainability strategy and communications agency Salterbaxter pondered whether environmental practitioners were being overly cautious about engaging others with the science behind their decision-making. This might have been because they thought investors, customers, employees or consumers would not be interested or because the science could be misinterpreted. As senior consultant Annie Lancaster notes, the Facebook page ‘I f**king love science’, dedicated to popularising scientific breakthroughs, has more than 25 million fans. And the University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy credited a 52% increase in applications for physics courses to the TV appearances of professor Brian Cox, who continues to lecture there.

‘If businesses do not capitalise on science being cool, it could prove to be a missed opportunity,’ the Salterbaxter report warns.

Explore, test and improve

Although good content and storytelling, face-to-face engagement, design, research and developing good relationships will remain powerful tools in the communications toolbox, there are many new approaches and mechanisms to experiment and innovate with, from social network Snapchat to the collaboration platform Slack.

There is never a bad time to review your own personal communication skills and consider how you can increase your impact and influence with colleagues, networks and external stakeholders. And there are plenty of examples out there to inspire practitioners with their powerful messages, innovative tools or impact.


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