In this article we profile History graduate Robin Clegg who, in a long career in journalism and communications has learned to use the power of words to further the cause of environmental sustainability.
What initially attracted you to study at the University of Hull?
The history department had an excellent reputation, an interesting range of topics and the campus had a good atmosphere when I visited for an open day which put it at the top of my list. There was also a vibrant music scene in the city and I wanted to get involved with the ents committee, helping put on bands and films.
Were there any aspects of your experience at Hull which led you down the career path that you’ve chosen?
Looking back, I think the history course helped develop an analytical approach and ability to interpret events – skills that stood me in good stead when I became a journalist for The Independent and throughout my career.
Tell us about your current role?
I set up Curve Communications and Events after nearly 20 years working on media and communications for WWF and a host of NGOs on environmental issues around the world. These gave me first hand insight into some of the problems communities face and the solutions being implemented.
Curve works on communicating initiatives that are contributing to the delivery of a more sustainable future through the national and international media alongside other target audiences. We also partner with sporting organisations and events to reduce their impact by monitoring their carbon footprint and finding ways to move them towards net zero. Our team also organises and speaks at conferences on environmental issues bringing together key influencers from the worlds of science, politics and sport to explore innovative solutions to the challenges we face.
Are your communications around sustainability primarily focussed on describing the goals and efforts of your clients to build sustainability, or are you often speaking directly to the consumer? (for example through recycling messages on consumer products)
It’s often a mix of the two although it depends on the message and the audience but it’s important to make the subject of the communications relevant to the group you’re trying to engage with.
When targeting consumers through media engagement it’s essential to make the communications relevant and newsworthy, where possible.
When working with a client, how do you communicate sustainability to a range of stakeholders and what methods/ channels do you use? I assume that each may have a different role to play in making the campaign effective?
It’s important to break it down to ascertain what’s the most interesting, groundbreaking, or innovative, element to the initiatives they’re undertaking in order to promote them to a public audience via the media. Advocating change to a political audience often requires a different approach.
There are so many platforms available to do this but through the mainstream media with press releases, complementary and impactful imagery, infographics and content for social media channels and key influencers can all play a part in disseminating the information to as wide an audience as possible. One of the key points to remember is that a campaign needs to have a ‘call to action’ to empower people to do something after reading about the issue.
Can you give us an example of a highly effective sustainability communications campaign that you’ve been involved with? How do you evaluate success in this field?
We managed communications for The Ocean Race, a global sailing event, on their ‘turn the tide on plastic’ campaign, with UN Environment, to raise awareness of plastic polluting our seas and encourage people to take action. We took our message to global host cities around the world highlighting the issue to race fans and the public using scientific data on microplastic levels in some of the remotest part of our oceans, collected by the boats whilst racing. We advocated positive change though the media but also by encouraging governments and big businesses to commit to tackling the problem. I worked with national and regional governments, including those in New Zealand and Brazil, celebrities, HRH King Charles and businesses, such as Volvo and Sky, to highlight the subject.
We encouraged tens of thousands of people to sign a UN Environment pledge to join the campaign and hundreds of schools also joined the initiative and used a curriculum- aligned education programme on oceans and plastic which we promoted globally.
Reach and engagement are important tools for defining success but, whilst this reached millions around the world online and in the international media, in such instances, there can be a political objective for legislative change to concrete steps taken by governments and business to take some form of positive action which this campaign certainly did.
Do you ever find that there is a conflict between the story that a client wants to tell and your need to be transparent about what has been achieved (or what can be achieved)?
It’s definitely important that a client understands that there has to be substance to what they’re looking to publicise and that if their initiatives are an attempt at ‘greenwashing’ then the media and public will not be interested plus there could be a reputational harm in taking this approach.
Do you have any advice to offer to students or graduates who might be interested in developing a career in sustainability focussed communications?
The demand for skilled communications professionals in this field is only increasing and gaining experience with an organisation working on sustainability is a good thing to have on your CV. Developing a broad communications skill set through a postgraduate qualification related to this field can also help hone your skills. I did a fast track NCTJ accredited course in journalism which helped equip me with the tools for the job.