How charities can build climate awareness into their communications

Kirsty Marrins offers practical advice for building climate change messaging into organisational narratives

In his inaugural Instagram post in September last year, the natural historian and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said that “saving the planet is now a communications challenge”.

As world leaders gather at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, climate change is an issue all charities have a responsibility to address. The crisis has global implications, and must be tackled collectively for meaningful change to happen.

Charity comms professionals have a vital role to play in helping to change hearts and minds when it comes to saving the planet, regardless of their cause area – and there are plenty of ways to do so.

While climate change is unlikely to form part of day-to-day communications for non-climate and environmental charities, there are multiple opportunities to engage with relevant issues throughout the year. Here’s how to tap into key climate awareness moments.

Find the relevance

For charities outside the environmental sector, it could be difficult to initially find a way to talk about climate change that feels relevant to their cause.

But with the climate emergency having an impact on aspects of life from the quality of the air that people breathe to creating food and water insecurity, it is an exercise worth doing.

Care International UK works alongside women, girls and their communities to save lives, overcome poverty and achieve social justice. It’s not obvious at first glance where climate change fits into its mission: but with women and girls around the world disproportionately affected by climate change, the relevance soon becomes apparent. The climate crisis is also a gendered crisis, says the charity, which is calling for women and girls to have a seat at the COP26 table.

Get the messaging right

Words have power, but they can also have a detrimental effect, so the messaging angle is vital. According to the media and comms charity On Road Media’s guide, Six Ways to Change Hearts and Minds About Climate Change, studies have shown that people are more likely to engage with climate change when the message is positive and hopeful, rather than one of doom and gloom.

Communicating urgency is key, it says – but not if the issue seems insurmountable.

“Finding the balance between creating a sense of urgency while remaining upbeat can be challenging,” says Ceri Jones, manager for Media Trust’s Weston Communicating Climate programme.

“However, if you are able to be positive, practical and make people feel in charge of change, you will keep your audience engaged and motivated.”

Plan ahead

Every comms team will have key moments throughout the year that are specific to their cause, and ones that are more general but can be easily tapped into. Don’t wait to see an awareness day trending on Twitter before hastily putting together some content.

There are myriad free resources online that can help plan awareness days: such as The United Nations’ online calendar of international days and weeks, including International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, World Wildlife Day and World Oceans Day.

Use existing resources

Charities, particularly small ones, are often stretched when it comes to communications and may not have the budget or resources to create video, images or graphics for climate awareness comms. But existing, free resources are available, such as Climate Visuals, a project of the comms charity Climate Outreach.

The resource provides not only a freely accessible image library, but useful guidance on joining the dots between climate change and health in the UK – such as how flooding can have a significant impact on the mental health of those affected.

Messages should be simple, jargon-free and easy to understand, and images used in a responsible and relevant way.

Recognise the power of a good story

Telling the right story in a powerful and effective way can catalyse change by shaping public perception – and charities have historically played major roles in bringing about change through the power of communication.

Between 2012 and 2015, 250 health and wellbeing organisations, including Cancer Research UK, campaigned to change cigarette packaging to non-branded, standard packs to make smoking less appealing to under-18s. Collectively these organisations gained public support to bring about a change in law that would help protect the health of children.

More recently, in 2019, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland – 51 years after the UK legalised abortion. This momentous change in public attitude, which ultimately led to a change in the law, was thanks to the tireless efforts of charities and grassroots activist organisations that fought for a woman’s right to a safe abortion.

Looking further back, the campaigning efforts of Greenpeace to save the whales (see page 26) with a change to the law in the 1980s is considered one of the defining conservation successes of the last century.

As Attenborough said in his Instagram post: “We know what we need to do – we just need the will.”


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