Five fundamental rules for communicating sustainability in sport

Five fundamental rules for communicating sustainability in sport

If sport is to become a key platform for climate communication and advocacy, it needs to take into account the different perspectives of key stakeholders

“What sport has to do with it (climate change) heaven only knows,” said Alan Hubbard in his regular Inside the Games column, lamenting the disruption caused by climate activists at recent sports events, namely the Grand National horse race and World Snooker Championships.

The worst of this is yet to come, Hubbard continued, pointing towards the “200 militant groups” who could descend on the Paris 2024 Olympic Games next summer, threatening to disrupt the most high profile sporting event in the world.

No mention of the disruption climate change will have on future editions of the Games and other sporting events. If Paris is as warm in 2024 as it was during the summer of 2022, participating athletes will be left in no doubt about the connection between the worsening climate and the health and prosperity of the sports industry.

But a knee-jerk reaction of anger to the article subsided into a realisation that, for those who are not as well-informed about the present and future consequences of the climate crisis, chaos caused by activists in everyday situations – or during events that are commonly associated with joy – can be upsetting and confusing.

Life experiences and influences from other people and media shape people’s perspectives and responses to certain scenarios and messages. For some, alarm and a sense of urgency can galvanise. Others can feel overwhelmed to the point of inaction, resistance and anger.

At the BASIS Conference in Bristol this week, Rob Hopkins, the author of From What Is To What If, stressed the need to present people with the prospect of a better future by fuelling imagination through imagery and even sound. The key to solving the climate crisis through mobilisation is to “embrace a longing” of what could be – a longing for streets with no cars, where trees grow, children play and the sounds of people enjoying life are not drowned out by engines emitting toxic fumes.

Sport, Hopkins said, could be a powerful medium for this. Instead of exploring a “doom-and-gloom” scenario of a world with no sport, how can we flip that around to imagine what sport looks like if we did what was necessary in terms of decarbonisation and environmental protection? What could sport look like in a 1.5°c world compared with a 2°c-plus world? A sports industry truly working in league with the natural environment that does so much to sustain it.

But it’s not as simple as trading one set of messages for another. People respond differently to different things. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins coined the Stockdale Paradox, reflecting on the experience of Jim Stockdale, a former US soldier who spent seven years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. According to Stockdale, those who fared worse in the camp were his fellow prisoners who displayed blind optimism, holding onto the hope that they’d be released soon. 

“They were the ones who said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale’s philosophy – one he carried into politics after his military careers – was to balance an unwavering faith that a successful outcome would prevail with “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality.”

Could this balanced approach (neither doom-and-gloom or blind optimism) be the answer to climate change communication going forward? Possibly, but it’s still one-size-fits-all, not accounting for different needs, concerns and levels of understanding.

If sport is to become a key platform for communication and advocacy around climate action, it has to take into account these different perspectives and not regard its key stakeholders – fans, for example – as one homogenous group. Otherwise messages and opportunities to create impact together totally miss the target.

If we, as an industry or individual organisations, want to articulate both the impact climate change is having on sport and what we are doing to address it, there are five fundamental rules to do so effectively.

The first rule is to always try to make a connection between the subject and the audience. Why should the audience care about climate and sustainability, and how can we make sustainability emotional and interesting?

Making a connection can be broken down into three main areas: giving the story a visceral, human face; connecting the topic with how it impacts the lives of people in your audience; and making it less complex through metaphors, models and other visuals.

Take sports journalists as a target audience. If we want them to report on climate and other environmental issues related to sport, or our own decarbonisation projects, we have to position these stories in a way that helps them do their core job: providing new, accurate and interesting content to their audiences. Our minds should be on helping them pitch to their editor and, ultimately, what their own audience wants from them.

If our audience is internal (e.g. trying to secure buy-in from leadership or support from colleagues), then we have to put ourselves in their shoes. How can this help them (i) achieve personal goals and (ii) achieve departmental goals?

In his book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning puts forward the concept of the ‘springboard story’ to move colleagues to action. The springboard story has a couple of important characteristics: it’s about a worthwhile cause (sustainability or company transformation); it is based on an actual example, from the point of view of a single protagonist (typically, someone similar to the target audience); explores the negative consequences of not implementing the ‘change idea’; and has a happy ending.

Authenticity is the second rule. Put simply, this means being honest about where you are in your sustainability journey with all stakeholders. What concrete action have you taken (and what were the results), and what were your challenges as well as your achievements.

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Sustainability Report dotted information throughout about some of the challenges the organising committee faced when knitting together its sustainability strategy and through implementations. A section titled ‘reflections from the sustainability team’ expanded on these challenges in order to help future organising committees and sports event organisers in general. 

While the Games achieved a lot with its sustainability programme there were four main reflections: departments within the organising committee could have been better joined up to achieve greater carbon reductions across the Games; the organising committee could have gone further with supply chain partners beyond a Suppliers Code that was produced; the business case for sustainability could have been better articulated; and there were difficulties securing land for conservation and carbon offsetting projects.

A natural extension of authenticity is being specific and careful with the use of language. Sport is an exciting, engaging and, for fans, carefree endeavour (or should be) – using sustainability jargon or cliché language is the total opposite of those sensibilities. Phrases like ‘our commitment’, ‘our planet’, ‘going green’ and even ‘carbon neutral’ are so overused and, in many ways, mean nothing.

Your audience will generally care about their health, families, jobs, hobbies and communities. How is your sustainability strategy or project supporting these goals?

The fourth rule is to empower your audience by giving them a call-to-action to be part of the solution, with ample support and guidance and no judgement. Internally, this can be done through sustainability working groups, ambassador programmes, as well as workshops and guides. 

Nobody wants to feel that situations are out of their control. Huge macro issues like climate change can often have an overwhelming effect on people, leaving them in a state of paralysis. Breaking solutions down, and giving your audience an opportunity to shape their own actions – whether they are colleagues or fans – provides an element of agency, control and positive accountability.

Tying this all together, and perhaps the most important element, is being strategic about sustainability communications. This means not talking to all audiences with one point of view or one perspective. All of your stakeholders will be different, with different needs and concerns. Sports fans are often treated as a homogenous group of people, but different segments of supporters will have different views and knowledge when it comes to sustainability and climate change.

Just as mapping stakeholders is critical when developing a sustainability strategy, it’s also pretty important when devising a communications strategy around your sustainability work. Decide key stakeholder groups for your communications by assessing their proximity and interest in your club, league or federation against a perceived interest in sustainability topics or, better yet, a deeper understanding through audience segmentation and research.

Once those key audiences have been decided, it’s time to define key messages, figure out the best way to reach these audiences and be crystal clear about what you want to achieve.

Sport’s potential to educate, engage and mobilise large groups of people around issues like climate change is often (and rightly) referenced as its main strength. If sport needs to step into the role of one of society’s main mediums for this, it is absolutely crucial that we get this right. These five rules are a good place to start.

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