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How to Get More Attention for Sustainability

Communicating is difficult in a hectic, divided world. Experts discuss how sustainability information can make it through the noise.

The public space for discussion and knowledge sharing is challenging. Opinions — and even facts — seem polarized. Information is scattered and incomplete, coming in Tweets, texts, and memes.

Can complex issues around business and sustainability find an audience?

Recently, experienced business journalists and business school sustainability centre leaders shared their ideas on effective communication. The journalists were Emily Chasan, sustainable finance editor at Bloomberg News; Curt Nickisch, senior editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR); and Bryan Keogh, senior editor for business and economy at The Conversation. The discussion was part of the NBS 2018 Sustainability Centres Community workshop.

Edited highlights are below.

Investors care about sustainability – but other audiences focus elsewhere

Emily Chasan: Bloomberg launched a sustainable finance newsletter a few years ago. I write sustainability-focused articles as part of that initiative. We have a huge number of clients and investor clients using environmental social governance data, and it’s been increasing pretty rapidly over the years. The stories that I write are, I think, designed more for these long term thinkers and long term investors. There are quite a few long term investors.

Curt Nickisch: At Harvard Business Review, sustainability is something we think is important and we have people writing for us about it. The articles often don’t perform very well, so you have this classic sort of news economics incentive battle between what’s short term value and what we know is also important to people around the world in our audience and the people that we’re trying to reach.

Jason Jay (workshop attendee, MIT Sloan): We have to consider, what else do people care about? There is a set of other concerns that are top of mind in our culture, like the plight of the white working class.

Emily Chasan: I had an interview not that long ago with the CEO of Calvert Research and Investment, John Streur, and the headline was “Inequality is a bigger problem than climate change.” He said you’re almost never going to be able to fix climate change if you don’t deal with inequality issues that are affecting governments around the world ….

There’s a lot of different competing things. Sometimes, one will enable the other — or will disenable it.

Better communication can draw attention

Curt Nickisch: We’re always thinking about how do you take something that’s important and make it as interesting as it should be. Whenever I hear sustainability stories, it sounds like a lot of kale to me and not enough smoothie. I think ways to get a little bit of kale in the smoothie can be helpful. I also don’t hear enough people. People are interested in people. We love to watch people work. If somebody takes action or young people in an organization change something, there’s just that natural narrative that people would be interested in.

Bryan Keogh: Communicating is not about imparting knowledge like people are in school. It’s about really engaging with storytelling, with a strong narrative that connects these things to their lives and shows that it matters.

Look beyond the partisan nature of some of these issues. If people hear “climate change,” that kind of turns them off. But there’s great demand for learning about the research that everybody in this room is doing and how it relates to lives, how it can help them understand this complicated marketplace of products, what’s sustainable, what’s not, what’s free range, cage free, what’s the difference, what’s actually good for the environment, is there a sustainable smart phone out there….

If you frame the debate as regulation versus saving the planet, for a lot of people, the desire for less regulation will win. If it’s taking away their SUVs, they’re not going to go for it. If you write an article about it, you have a chance to reframe what it’s about, going into why it matters and trying to get through the back door of these political conversations.

Curt Nickisch: Figure out what that simple narrative is. Climate change, it seems so hard. But everybody understands a budget. Managing climate change is just an energy budget. If you can find simple models, it helps people to understand things better.

Identify what role you want to play

Ralph Hamann (workshop attendee, University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business):Should I worry about offending people? I’ll give you an example. I wrote an editorial for an American magazine a few days ago and referred to something that the US government did that I thought was very offensive and stupid. The editor said, “Oh, don’t write this in the editorial. It’s going to be divisive.” I was like, “Well, that’s how I see it. What do you want me to do? Hold back just because I’m going to offend that constituency?” I find that a little bit limiting and constraining.

Bryan Keogh: I think it depends on your purpose. There is room for activists and there is room for conciliators in any debate. But if you want to connect with readers… If you as an author comes off very political or insensitive or offensive to a certain type of person, who doesn’t already presume or believe the things that you believe, that person’s not going to read it, right? You’re not going to change their mind or push the needle a little bit.

If you want to push the needle, which is all I think you can do with people who are so strongly opposed psychologically, you have to find a way to take a step back and say, “Where can I create that common ground and just present the evidence?”

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    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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