Exploring partnership in a changing world

by Savita Willmott

Who contributes to “environmental solutions”? As the evidence for climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental change mounts, researchers and practitioners are increasingly trying to find new ways to motivate public and sector stakeholders to take pro-environmental actions. In order to make sure that public communication campaigns are effective, environmental communicators regularly seek out partnerships to reach audiences, often through working with communities or audience-led organisations.

There are regular discussions in the sector about avoiding the pitfalls of the “echo chamber” and only speaking to ourselves or those already making pro-environmental behaviours, ensuring we are reaching the widest possible audiences, including those which are under-served. Reports such as Natural England’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) report (PDF) in particular highlight under-served audiences such as BAME audiences, young people and those living in urban deprived areas as having less contact with natural spaces. But when it comes to designing engaging communication initiatives from the beginning, who is really sitting at the table?

Since 2004, The Natural History Consortium has been running the Communicate conference, bringing together a cross-section of NGOs, policymakers, academics, media content developers, and green businesses to explore the latest tools and techniques for engaging a wide range of audiences with environmental content.

The conference has welcomed over 2,500 professionals across the UK in its 15 year history, and helped launch a number of national campaigns, as well as new resources for the sector, such as Engaging Biodiversity.

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The benefits for social science researchers

We’ve partnered with ESRC since 2011, not just to bring in crucial research from social science, but also to explore a multi-sector approach to co-creation, not just delivery. We’ve found that we undertake the process ourselves as we create conference sessions that bring in different voices, and often some of the most fundamental conversations take place in the conference planning stages.

One of our ESRC social science researchers described how his participation in Communicate began unfolding and leading to other opportunities and connections after the conference:

“I’ve just chaired a lunchtime seminar here, which has been very well received, with [an NGO] I met at Communicate. [They spoke] about promoting outdoor activity in general and walking in particular, relating the themes to behaviour change, social marketing and the idea that we need to connect environmental themes to resonant cultural stories and moments. Some students were so impressed that they might focus their dissertations on the links between health, walking and sustainability, and we intend to bring them back to speak on one of our MSc modules next academic year.

I’ve also been in touch with a fellow speaker and shared a platform with him once or twice since Communicate.

I have been asked to reprise my Communicate talk by others who heard it or about it, so the conference was a good showcase for [ESRC-funded] work.

Finally, the themes that were touched on in Communicate are resonant here as we plan new research bids. One proposal… is informed by ideas I picked up at Communicate. And a colleague and I have plans for a project on reconnection of young people to the natural world, which I had thought about previously but which the Communicate experience helped bring into sharper focus.”

What’s up for debate?

Climate change is yet again top of the environmental news agenda, and organisations are gearing up for a range of initiatives and communications campaigns including 2019 as a Year of Green Action to include young people in social action. We’ve made a special effort to connect with ESRC’s climate change programme, to ensure we can include cutting-edge research into emerging partnerships and discussions.

In Too Big to Ignore, we’ll be exploring what the turning points and tipping points are that transform public interest into private sector change. To do so, we’ll be showing highlights of ESRC research and previous presentations which have been shown at the conference (all are freely available on the Communicate archive).

In Brexit – Making Opportunities, Dr Tom Appleby from the University of the West of England will share some of his current research on environmental policies that will shape the next phase of decision making in the UK. He’ll be joined on stage by the National Trust, giving a conservation perspective and encouraging delegates to think about the power of membership organisations

In Smarter Strategies, Katharine Steentjes from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change will explore public perceptions, social norms and the balance between behaviour change and policy change – alongside The Wildlife Trusts, again bridging research in practice in the discussions.

Once again we hope to build new partnerships and approaches during this year’s event, and develop new ideas that really will bring a more diverse group to the table to create environmental solutions.


Savita Willmott 150Savita Willmott has been CEO of The Natural History Consortium since 2006, a charitable collaboration of 13 organisations who produce the annual Communicate conference as well as a range of regional and national engagement programmes.

You can follow @sav63 and @CommunicateConf on Twitter.

Join us at Communicate on 23-24 October, and explore the Art of the Possible. Single session tickets are still available for some of the events at the conference.

This week (15-19 October) is Green GB Week – a Government-led campaign being supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), with a number of events and activities planned across the country. The aim of Green GB Week is to engage us all with the importance of tackling climate change and ensuring clean growth. Visit the UKRI website to learn more about Green GB Week.

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