Communication Will Help Save Our People and Planet by Gihan A.M. Hyde, founder & CEO of CommUnique (UK)

Gihan Hyde is the founder of Communique the ESG communications consultancy. Her and her team help organizations to test the effectiveness of their ESG business strategies and embed it within their communication campaigns. Some of their clients included HSBC, Barclays, BP, and M&S. Their work impacted 200K employees, 150K customers and resulted in investments worth £300M. Follow Gihan on LinkedIn or email her

Communicating how to save our planet and people does not have to be difficult. It is something you can build into your existing communication and business planning. By sharing your challenges as well as your successes, you will build trust and credibility through the eyes of your stakeholders.

The internal commitment to communicating around how the company is saving people and planet should be thought of as an asset that should be reported on the balance sheet and thought of as something that can generate cash flow, reduce expenses, attract the right talent and improve sales. An asset that needs funding, improvement, testing, love, care and attention. So do take it seriously and spend time harnessing its powers.

Well-crafted people and planet communication messages and stories can be a powerful tool, from engaging employees and helping to drive change internally, to sparking stakeholders’ interest in the big milestones you are meeting. And it can also help to increase competitive advantage,
as your position on social and environmental issues differentiates you from your peers.

Below are a few thoughts on how businesses and communicators can tell a compelling story about saving our people and planet, and change their mindsets to become more responsible businesses and individuals.

Start with Your People

To communicate how to save our people and planet successfully, you need employees to own your story, but how do you get your employees to live your values around saving people and the planet? The key is to sell it as an opportunity to contribute to the future health of both the company and society. Sometimes, you must appeal to the head (financial incentives, cost savings, career advancement), other times to the heart (“look at the difference we make”). Very often, you need to appeal to both.

You must also ensure that your people and planet strategy calls for genuine, active senior buy-in and championing. Rather than leaving it to one department or looking to add it on later, it relies on many parties: board directors, CEO, CFO, CSO, chief risk officer, general counsel, chief people officer, international relations officer, head of communications and internal and external auditors, all working together as one.

Before you do anything though, you need to get your house in order by making sure people and planet is 100 per cent part of your company’s DNA and that it filters both top-down and bottom-up. To do that, there are some crucial questions that you need to ask yourself before you start thinking about your environmental and social impact strategies and communications.

Once you have the above in place —and agreed them with your leaders and other key stakeholders—there are several models you can use to shape your communications. Here are two tried-and-tested ones.

Be full of BS (Behavioural Science)

As humans, our behaviour is driven by two systems: the automatic system and the reflective system. If you see a picture of children running in the park and smiling, you’ll instinctively think that they are happy and having a great time. This is an example of the automatic system. Whereas if you are presented with a difficult puzzle, you’ll need to sit and work out how to solve it. This is an example of the reflective system. The problem is, as humans, we are biologically designed to save our energy and so we will always take the easy way out.

People and planet communication to date is typically complicated, long-winded and not relatable. So our instinct is not to engage with it. Try simplifying your message and your language so your audience doesn’t have to spend time working out what you mean.

Another of our basic instincts as humans is our pack mentality, meaning we mirror the people around us. For example, if we see others standing in a line, we do the same. If someone whispers, we lower our voice. This instinct is so strong that it often overrules many of our own good intentions. In people and planet communication, we can adopt the pack mentality approach by shaping our messages around others’ actions and impact. For example, instead of saying, “For each purchase you make, we’ll plant a tree,you can say, “Join the 10,000 female entrepreneurs who are helping us save the planet.”

We are also designed to react to immediate danger, not a threat in the future. So, when we talk about climate change, for example, the perception of its urgency can vary because it affects different people in more and less immediate ways.

I once heard this analogy that has stuck with me ever since: If you adopt behavioural change approaches, it is like sending your audience to a hotel. It is new, it’s exciting and it’s fun but it’s short term. However, if you use all the support and all the behavioural change tools available, it’s like building a house. You’re giving them a place to stay, rest, be comfortable and thrive. It is new to begin with, and then it is forever.

So the next time you design your communication strategy, will you be building a house or sending your audience to a hotel?

Pro Tip: Instead of focusing your people and planet messages on what’s happening in other parts of the world, focus your messages around what’s happening in your immediate surroundings.

Be naïve

For people and planet communication to have an impact, you need to simplify it, clarify it and tell a story that will stick. Compelling data and facts can help, but that’s where it gets tricky.

In the case of saving the people and planet, data often isn’t comprehensive or accurate, especially when it comes to environmental impact, so when communicators try to translate it into a story, it can come across as greenwashing. Until technology advances and the necessary data are available, one option is embracing naivety and adopting a beginner’s mindset.

The “beginner’s mind” is a Zen Buddhist concept. As late Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki put it: “in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert mind, there are few.” In other words, the beginner’s mindset is the ability to cancel any preconceptions you have on a specific topic, unlearn what you know and learn it again.

When we adopt the mindset of a beginner, we tend to look at things as if it were for the first time, free from the influence of the past or speculation about the future. We open ourselves to what is here now rather than constructing stories about what we think is here.

This begins with asking the questions that others don’t dare to ask, or wouldn’t even think to ask. When I was the head of change communications in Barclays’ Internal Audit department after the bank’s Libor scandal, I used to make sure that all of my meetings had three personalities present: the Interrogator, the Expert and the Dreamer. The Interrogator is confident and not afraid to ask naïve questions and push the boundaries (usually that was me); the Expert knows their subject inside out, better than anyone else in the organisation; and the Dreamer is the most optimistic, always seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

By adopting this approach, I was able to really unravel the complexity of how a bank is governed and translate it into a communication strategy that would help my stakeholders—who weren’t part of compliance, risk or audit—understand the role they play in protecting the bank. It also helped me build strong relationships with colleagues, suppliers and customers because it showed I valued their input and that they were part of the journey.

Pro Tip: To tell an effective people and planet story, you don’t need to be an expert. Stay naïve because that very naivety will help you simplify your messages and have the confidence to test them before launching them.

And here you have it Communicating ESG should not and is not difficult, you just need to spend time understanding it and asking the difficult questions.

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