Sustainability continues to be a huge topic of conversation and source of consternation in 2024. Consumers are increasingly prepared to take their money, and loyalty, elsewhere when a business’ ethics don’t meet their own.
To add to this demand for demonstrable integrity are the constraints of regulation. Since moving from broadcast journalism in 2007, Curious PR Ltd (London)’s founder and managing director Hannah Kapff has worked in regulated sectors including healthcare and environmental sustainability, for global brands like Pfizer, to start-ups including The Naked Pharmacy.
Here, Hannah takes us through the challenges as well as the rich rewards that come from doing the work well.
What would you say are the biggest challenges for comms professionals working in the environmental sustainability space in 2024?
I’ve been predicting for years that it will become increasingly difficult to gain attention among the media (and thus the public) about issues of sustainability if the conversation is too negatively-framed.
In short, the ‘engaged public’ (and, remember, a certain fraction never engage, whatever the message) want to hear about tangible solutions to ‘the problem’ as opposed to more death, destruction, Armageddon. Internally, they are asking, ‘So, what can I do about this?’ Somehow, our job as communicators is to point to solutions, or risk losing the audience. That’s not to say that shame can’t be a powerful tool. Consider that just three years ago, many of us carried a single use plastic bottle of water in our bags. Now, pull one out at a meeting, and there’s a cringe moment, which is clearly to be welcomed. Our conscience has changed.
My team at Curious PR are involved in a campaign to save the pristine waters and Posidonia meadows of islands in the Bay Of Athens from mass invasion by multinational fish farming firms. The effects of open net fish farming on marine ecology are horrific, yet, we try to point to solutions: don’t buy farmed salmon, avoid bream or bass in a restaurant, go for sardines or smaller fish near the bottom of the food chain, sign the petition, tell your friends. Help #SavePoros. Likewise, when it comes to preventing extinction of British bird species, think ‘pragmatic’: If your cat hunts (mine’s too lazy), exhaust its hunting drive by playing with it for ten minutes a day. This is scientifically proven to work, thanks to the University of Exeter.
Positive tips now shared, I admit to being struck by the extent to which Davos – which I used to cover as a journalist at CNBC Europe – is being described as ‘The new COP’. I’m all for silo-breaking and knowledge sharing, which is what such forums are meant for, but is there still a home for NGOs focussed on environmental campaigns? I’m haunted by the Tower of Babel-like description of COP24 by Arlo Brady, co-founder of Blue Marine Foundation, via LinkedIn, which ends on a decidedly blue note.
How do you stay reactionary in this sector when getting sign-off can take time?
I think having former broadcast journalists on our team helps balance ‘the need for speed’ with accuracy, and helps frame opinions on the issue at play in interesting ways via succinct messages. We also design our PR assets to ensure the audience ‘gets it’ at a glance (The lengthiest sign-off periods I’ve encountered have involved medical professionals, for obvious reasons. I recall over 25 drafts of one report years ago, and don’t get me started on delays via ‘Can you wait for my new headshot please?’!) One tip: Agree on the one person who’ll be the ultimate approver for speedy reactions, such as for social media. Planning is all. If key messages are agreed, organisation-wide, plus banks of expert comments for simple tweaking, you’ll be halfway there.
How do you keep your campaigns creative when up against heavy regulation?
In terms of creativity, I’m an art lover and very visual, so one of my greatest loves in this job is handing over a brief and watching creatives breathe their imaginative oxygen or artistic beauty into a campaign – be that via animation, infographic, even a logo. A journalist often asks, ‘Do you have images?’, so be ready. We also love wordplay, hence our ‘What3Birds’ campaign with the What3Words geolocation platform for SongBird Survival.
Regulation is an interesting one. Working in healthcare and environmental comms imbues you with a science-driven, risk-averse approach. There will be new regulations emerging on how companies report their sustainability achievements, and the very language of this sector is changing fast. Terms such as ‘ESG’ have been somewhat hijacked, and as we know, words are everything. Control the language, and you control the people. Greenwashing and its nervous cousin, greenhushing, need to be tackled. These issues will grow new shoots.
How do you manage reputational risk in comms strategies?
Reputational risk is best handled by asking ‘what could go wrong’ – at all times, and in all areas of the business or organisation in question – and having a plan for each scenario. Crisis management is far easier without staring at a blank sheet of paper, or down the barrel of a TV camera. At Curious PR, our style is collaborative, rather than combative: it’s surprising how opening the door for an honest, open debate can influence opinions, even if it doesn’t elicit a 180 degree volte face from ‘rivals’.
When I first heard about the Horizon Post Office scandal around 12 years ago, I thought it must be April Fool’s Day, such was my horror and disbelief at this David and Goliath battle, and how unreported it was. I do believe that, had social media been around when those poor postmasters were first being prosecuted, they’d have ‘found each other’, and history may have been different. This is a case study in how not to do PR. Interestingly, it’s been argued that it was intervention by lawyers before consulting the communications team which set the path for a catalogue of errors, with tragic consequences. Of course we need legal experts, and they’re increasingly entering PR, but if they don’t first think, ‘What’s the right, the human thing to do?’ rather, ‘Defend the bottom line, at all costs’, we are in for more suffering and scandal. On the flip side, as a former documentary-maker, it was impressive to see the power of television to achieve positive outcomes.
How do you stay up-to-date with regulation and legislative changes in the sustainability space?
Probably like most organisations, by following the relevant media and regulator announcements. Recently, the European Parliament voted to delay the development of sector-specific European Sustainability Reporting Standards until 2026. This is relevant to some of our clients. In short, it’s always sensible to plan ahead and deploy best practice, rather than being the last to be dragged in. We’re lucky to have clients that think alike.
How do you track the ROI and impact of such campaigns?
We use the best measurement tools we can buy, but impact remains the million dollar question, and nobody’s got the perfect answer. If it’s a question of really moving the needle on an issue in health or environment, you have to think long term, and be generous enough also to factor in the efforts of other players working with the same goals. Alternatively, if a client is obsessed with numbers, you may want to advise them to go down the advertising route (we’ve only had to do this once). But look where that’s got advertising creativity in recent years (with brilliant exceptions of course): Bland, beige, and blocked.
Would you say there is ever room for attention-grabbing PR ‘stunts’ in heavily-regulated sectors like these, or is this a definite no-no?
I once worked on proposals for a sustainable women’s menstrual product (we’ve done a lot of ‘below the belt’ here!) and proposed building an art installation showing how many tampons a woman would get through in her life, versus one small, washable medical device. That was a stunt, and sadly we didn’t get to make it happen. So, yes, but make it relevant, not gimmicky, and mind the rules and regs!
How do you grab the attention of journalists with pitches related to this subject?
I would say this wouldn’t I, but the headline is all. Whether it’s for an infographic, an event, a press release, or social media asset. You have just nanoseconds to pitch. So put time into it. Ask a question, perhaps. Be original but concise. Definitely avoid ‘also-rans’. Be obsessed: Keep refining and distilling. Test it out on different audiences. And learn by reading the newspapers – they nail headlines every hour of the night and day.
What are the biggest rewards when working in this sector, despite its challenges?
Seeing your client on TV with a huge global audience brilliantly conveying information you know will get an ‘I had no idea about this’ reaction that sparks curiosity (hence our weekly #Fact2Life stream) or even action, such as a better habit. Getting recognition for a company, cause, or CEO when it’s eminently well deserved. We delight in putting people and organisations on the map who are brilliant, but simply need some help with a) Knowing where their uniqueness lies, b) Getting the word out there with excellence. I won’t lie: Being nominated for PR awards is wonderfully goosebumpy too. Especially when you’ve over-serviced that project to the ‘nth degree!
For more on sustainable PR, check out these four practical steps for building sustainability into your campaigns.