COMMUNICATIONS – How to communicate authentically

2 August 2016

Andy Kenworthy, the Sustainable Business Network’s new communications and campaigns specialist, shares his insights and tips ahead of our annual conference. Watch and read our Q&A.

What’s your role at SBN?

I work in campaigns and communications. The key thing for that is getting the message out to our network of interesting things that are happening with our projects and with the work that we do with our members. With our campaigns we’re going from a space where we’re reporting what we’re doing to where we’re trying to make change. So we’re trying to stack up ideas and messages to change the way people do things.

What’s your background?

I was originally a writer and journalist in local newspapers in the UK.  I went from there to NGO work with WWF around the world. When I came to New Zealand in 2006 I brought both of those elements with me. I ended up writing for a bunch of magazines over here. 2006-2009 was a growth area for sustainability and everyone wanted green pages for their magazines. I worked for Home NZ magazine and then Good, Idealog and Element with the Herald. On the other side of my business I was consulting in fundraising for charities like Oxfam and WWF, and for two years I worked with Greenpeace. Then I turned up here!

What changes are you seeing in sustainable business?

The growth of the climate change issue has impacted businesses globally. It’s been interesting to see how that story has played out in New Zealand. When I got here there was a lot of interest in sustainability. It dwindled away around 2008 with the Global Financial Crisis and change in government. That helped to trigger in New Zealand the movement that was going on around the world where the idea of sustainability dispersed into areas around health, wellbeing and value. That’s linked to what you’re seeing now with artisanal brands. People stopped talking about sustainability directly and started talking about other bits and bobs attached to it.

In a way it was good logic because it was where people actually interacted with sustainability. It came down to, ‘how do I make my life healthier, how do I do things better?’ There was a huge growth in the consumer sustainability movement as well, which was partly because it was very palatable. It was an easy way to sell sustainability. The way to deal with climate change was to change people’s shopping habits. Magazines and media outlets made a lot of money out of that.

We’re now seeing a new focus on genuine sustainability. The climate issue has now solidified and everyone but the really mental people understand and believe in it. So we’re getting the rise again of businesses like Air New Zealand talking about sustainability and putting it front and centre. They’re confident the public understand it and want to see some action. So these are interesting times.

How does that map into how businesses communicate what they’re doing with sustainability?

A parallel development has happened, especially around social media, in which there’s been an explosion in communications and the growth of what I call the age of authenticity. We used to have mass media, which was easier to manipulate. You could put a nice shiny message in front of people and they were more likely to tolerate it. Now there are so many channels that go around, behind and through brands that you can’t really play that game anymore. The idea of greenwash has developed through that time and it’s just not possible any more in the long term.

So what you’re seeing now is brands having to communicate with the public, having to interact on the public’s terms and having to be clear about their positive role on society.  That goes through the whole brand.

You’re also seeing a new generation of people coming through into career positions. I’ve experienced that myself where I’ve been dealing with someone who’s into sustainability in a large organisation and then they’ve left. But another person has come through and they’re also into sustainability. You’re seeing that at more and more senior levels too. It’s happening in the businesses and it needs to be communicated externally through brands and interactions. That’s where communications lies and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger part of what people are doing.

What are your top tips for businesses to communicate the good they’re doing?

First of all, do some good!  It’s hard to communicate something you’re not doing. So you not only have to do some good but it has to be installed into the core of the business. There’s very little value to be gained by a business if you sell stuff that’s bad for society and then on the side lines give some money away for free lunches. Sustainability has to go right to the centre of what you’re doing. So first, get clear about what you’re doing for society, why it’s a good thing and why people should know about it.

Then maintain that clarity throughout your communications. It’s easy to get baffled by bells and whistles and all the wonderful things you can do with words and make them look shiny with lovely images. But if you’re not communicating the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, it just isn’t working. One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that because you put information out there, particularly on social media, that people understand it.

So the third part is to continually monitor to make sure that what you put out there is being consumed and understood in the way that you hope it would be.

What excites you most about the future of sustainable business?

It’s because it’s the only future for business in New Zealand. If you’re excited about business, you have to be excited about sustainability because it’s going to be the only show in town. In my career I’ve had 20 years of shouting about this stuff. It’s really heartening to see it come into the mainstream and a lot of the stuff we’ve been saying come to fruition.

We’ve got one thing on our side in the sustainability movement, which is reality. Everybody else is now coming in to play. We’re seeing some of the bigger players come in as well as the technology growing up around it. We’re seeing world-changing ideas like electric vehicles and the ways we’re dealing with energy come through. It’s a message of hope. I’ve spent a long time looking at landscapes that are being destroyed and trying to save creatures that are being wiped out. The only way that’s going to happen is by doing our business in a better way that makes sense for the planet.

You can see Andy in action along with sustainability leaders at our conference on Communicating in an Age of Authenticity, which will take place at AUT University on 31 August. Tickets are on sale now.

Find out more here