[Co-Authored by John Bianchi, vice president, FINN Partners, Health]
We’re confronted with a looming problem. The environment is in poor health. Everything the environment sustains — plants, animals, our communities, our businesses, our families, and ourselves — are now equally at risk of poor health. As we experience record heat waves, fires burning in the western U.S. for the last decade, polluted water, and a global pandemic driven in large part by environmental factors, that couldn’t be clearer.
And yet, galvanizing support for environmental and human health remains difficult. Environmental protection, politicized for the short-term gain of a few, remains a hot button in the halls of power, but it’s becoming an issue discussed at the breakfast table for most Americans as people, communities, and corporations are starting to reach consensus, supporting the environment for the sake of health and wellbeing.
There are still immense challenges, and they hinge on communications. People, communities, and businesses possess enough power to affect the change needed to address climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation, but to bring that power to bear to heal the planet, they need to work together. That means they need to be better at communicating.
Communicating With Clarity and Impact
As communicators, it’s important that we tell it like it is. That means not only being truthful, it means using plain language that everyone can understand, but also using words that have power and work to make the point.
Humanity is in a battle and the stakes are enormous. Words are the weapons that will help us win it, and we must choose them carefully. We need words with power, value and emotional impact that convey deeper meanings. Consider the words “farmer” and “factory.”
“Farmer” conjures a very American way of life. Farmers built America, and the word is imbued with value: hard work, toughness, family, simplicity, and productivity. “Farmer” is a good word that works hard. “Factory” is also a good word, but what it emotionally summons up is another story: smokestacks, pollution, crowding, inhumanity, and alienation.
When “factory” is put together with “farm,” the specter of animals jammed together in tiny pens, unable to turn around or breathe fresh air, is clearly communicated.
While nearly nine out of ten Americans (88%) have a positive opinion of farmers, and nearly as many (84%) support sustainable farming and economies, that unwavering trust doesn’t extend to all agricultural methods. Nine in ten (89%) are opposed to factory farming practices, citing public health, worker safety and animal welfare as their main concerns.
Farmers themselves hold an even more negative opinion of factory farming; 85% of them and their families support a complete ban on new factory farming facilities, nearly twice the number of the general public.
Proponents of factory farming, attempt to defuse this emotionally charged language by substituting bland phrases such as “intensive production.” These euphemisms make use of words that lack impact. Using devalued phrases is a tactic that’s been employed as long as there have been those who defend what they know is indefensible.
While these tactical choices should be clear, strategically, we face a bigger challenge. To protect the health of the planet and humanity, we need to find new voices and new ways of reaching potential allies — and this includes everyone from small, local community groups to corporations with whom we share common ground.
…And Not a Drop to Drink
Water consumption and scarcity are rising supply-chain and health-risk issues. In a June note to investors, Barclays analysts shared that water scarcity is a concern for sectors that include a wide range of industries from agriculture to food to beverages to shipping. According to the Barclays report:
“Water is one of the most important natural resources in the world, essential for humans to survive and industries to function. And yet, we face social, environmental and development stresses stemming from water shortages and increased water usage.”
So long as it flows freely from our faucets, water doesn’t capture much attention. In the developed world, we have a naïve belief that water is infinite, but climate change is tipping the dominos that lead to water scarcity. The list of Standard and Poor 500 companies at risk for shortages includes global foods powerhouse Unilever, consumer products leader Colgate Palmolive and cleaning products giant Reckitt Benckiser, and Barclay’s predicts these and many others may face a 40% to 50% EBITDA impact.
Before supplies dry up, these three consumer-products giants are investing mightily in communication to elevate voices on the common need to work for a healthier planet by tackling climate change. Reckitt Benckiser in particular has begun listening sessions with stakeholders in areas at risk to discuss climate change and what’s needed to ensure water supplies.
They’re not just talking about environmental risk; they recognize that health is fundamental to their business success and our survival.
Together, Environmental and Health Advocacy Communicators Can Have Greater Impact.
At a time when business is recognizing and acting on the need for sustainability, a window has opened that allows environmental, health and corporate PR pros to drive a broad, united effort to effect change.
That’s got to happen quickly. To ensure their futures, industries, and communities must build out their environmental communication planning and programs, taking a far broader view that should feature a synthesis of environmental health, economic sustainability, and human health and wellness.
With a remarkable career that spans public service — as a senior attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation — environmental advocacy, and advisor to corporate boards, Bob Martineau, JD, a senior partner with Finn Partners, has seen that environmental degradation is the largest threat to our health. He said:
“Climate and environmental degradation pose a greater danger (than COVID-19), but…we live in a snapchat world of 30 second messaging. It’s hard to have that same sense of urgency when the degradation and impacts are more incremental and long term. But communicating the seriousness of the issue from a public health perspective could be the great uniter… We need to find different ways to communicate with people the importance of critical public health issues and depoliticize them. We need to find better messengers — be they ministers in the pulpit, trusted sports heroes or a favorite music legend.”
Whatever our background, we are natural allies. We face a common danger: a planet that soon won’t support our health, whether it’s human or economic. We must now see that our fates have always been inextricably intertwined, and that forces us to work together.
Environmental, health, and corporate communicators must learn from each other, share best practices and adapt to meet our imperative, shared need to communicate effectively with the public with clarity and impact for the sake of our health.