Communicating sustainability to audiences - a new model?

We’ve just completed Act Green 2023 - our second year of surveying audiences about the climate emergency, and the role they think cultural organisations should play. It’s worth a read, as the data (and the quotes from audiences) provides solid evidence for being bigger and bolder in our response to sustainability - not only as good corporate citizens, but as behaviour and attitude change influencers.

Read the full report

Act Green 2023: Understanding audience attitudes towards the role of cultural organisations in tackling the climate emergency

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Some of the key findings were:

Cultural audiences are WAY more concerned than the general public about the climate emergency - but they don’t think cultural organisations are doing enough OR they’re not really sure what we’re doing.

They want to play their part to help cultural organisations be more sustainable but they need more information from organisations about how they can do that, infrastructure to support them and incentives to encourage them.  

Audiences understand the unique position cultural organisations hold to influence society and want organisations to lead the way, facilitating conversations and tackling the subject of climate change through the artistic or curated programme. BUT they don’t want to be ‘preached at’ and they are sensitive to virtue-signalling and green-washing.

Multi coloured bubbles along a string

So there’s clearly an opportunity for us to communicate with an already supportive and interested audience, but how do we do that without falling into the ‘preaching’ or ‘greenwashing’ trap, especially now with new regulations from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) to ensure that any claims made by organisations around sustainability can be substantiated?

We’ve had a think about what we’ve learned from the research and would like to offer a new model for how you might communicate your role as an organisation, and your approach to sustainability:

A labelled pyramid. Title is Communicating a cultural organisations' approach to sustainability. The copy that follows is a breakdown of the content on this image.

Doing what is expected

At the most basic level you need to show and tell audiences that you’re doing what they expect of you. And provide infrastructure that audiences can use to help you. You’re probably already doing loads and are all over this, whether it’s your recycling bins, stickers on hand driers or branded re-usable cups. So it’s worth at least recognising that.

Leading by example

At the next level you’re starting to highlight ways in which you might be trying to do something differently. Perhaps it’s a biodiversity project, or a new way to encourage people to travel to the venue. But it’s probably still in the operational / venue management area, rather than getting into creative stuff.

Personally, I think audiences will be interested in your story about how you’re trying, even if you don’t ultimately succeed - which might help with some of the comms challenges we were talking about before. Call everything a pilot project until it works, and then you can adopt it as policy.

Some organisations have been making headlines with their ‘hero’ sustainability projects - such as HOME’s beehives on the roof, or Chichester Festival Theatre’s Carbon offsetting.

Chichester Festival theatre building. A brown building long in length, framed by trees and blue sky

Positively challenging

It’s very clear that audiences want to see us using our influence in society to help facilitate conversations and exploration around the climate change issue through events and workshops. And this is perhaps where we start to get into the most sensitive territory around ‘facilitating’ rather than ‘preaching’.

And it’s also where potentially we can use our collective voice to lobby for change on things that individually we can’t do anything about - through regional organisations such as SAIL in Leeds and GMAST in Greater Manchester.

Imagining a new future

And then finally, the purely creative - where our writers and artists can help us mere mortals to see what a different future world might look like, and help people to see beyond the here and now. 

People definitely see a role for our sector in telling stories that will help people to think differently. So what an opportunity we have as a sector.

But I think one of the challenges we face as communications specialists is that when we’re asked to help the organisation tell its story about sustainability, we’re not always clear whether we’re talking about this amazing creative storytelling stuff, or putting a few stickers on some recycling bins.

So it’s easy for us to be overwhelmed or confused. And I think audiences too will need you to be clear in your minds about what you’re communicating and why.

In our suggested model of communication, these things need to be related. If you don’t consistently communicate that you’re getting the fundamentals right, and show that you’re leading by example, why wouldn’t your audiences be hesitant when you ask them to be part of a conversation about climate change, or start creating work or stories around the climate to help them imagine a new future?  

To build the trust you need to the things at the top will need really good comms around the stuff at the bottom. Otherwise it can sound a lot like virtue signalling or preaching.

Final points

1. Have a joined up approach across the organisation

Of course, this is the easiest thing to say and possibly the hardest to do, but you need to understand what you’re doing at each level of that pyramid, and how you are going to communicate it consistently to build trust at every level.

2. Don’t underestimate the role that you play

Your work day-to-day as a marketing and comms professional is about behaviour change. You spend your time crafting copy, images and communications to put opportunities in front of people in a way that is so relevant and attractive to them that they can’t resist.

So just possibly you are the best person to help the organisation communicate behaviour change about other things too? You can ensure that as an organisation you are consistent, clear, positive and not preachy, and have oversight of the whole comms approach. You need to be involved as much in how the recycling signage is displayed and delivered, as in the new ground-breaking production about climate change.

3. Have confidence in the fact that the audience is right behind you

The evidence we’ve presented in Act Green should help you to believe that.  Don’t get distracted or knocked off course by the (sometimes vocal) minority.

Katy Raines
Founder & CEO

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