Leadership Lessons: Sustainability in Comms with Kerrita McClaughlyn, Director of Sustainability Communications

Why curiosity is intrinsic to communications, how sustainability storytelling is evolving in the field, and the secret route to transitioning to purpose-driven work. We recently spoke with Kerrita McClaughlyn, Director of Sustainability Communications about her journey to the sector, and the importance of connecting with the right people. Take a look.

How did you get into communications, and what initially drew you into the field?

When I was about 8 years old, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I studied journalism in university and interned at The Boston Globe, and went on to work for the Boston Herald and other community newspapers. I enjoyed it but I wanted to become a foreign correspondent. So I went to grad school in Brussels to study international relations, and instead of going back to journalism, I took a founding role at the International Diabetes Federation to head up their media relations. And it went from there.

What personal attributes have helped you succeed?

Curiosity that’s come from my stint in journalism. In comms, whatever the subject, you have to be interested in the topic and the people. The skills of comms are the same, but if you’re switching to a different field, you have to learn about that field. You have to want to engage people and want to learn, even if it seems so external to what you do. People get stuck when that curiosity fades.

That curiosity is what’s led me to ESG and sustainability. But every sector I’d worked in prior ended up being critical to pivoting to sustainability.

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in sustainability in 2024 and beyond?

A big part of what’s come in is a heavy focus on reporting. So whether you’re public or private, small or large, companies need to introduce more ESG and sustainability reporting. A big issue for the industry is making sustainability more legible and tangible for consumers. For the public, it can feel very technical or political. We need to make it easier to understand, explain why decisions have been made, and frankly, we need to develop better products in the sustainability field. We need to get past the conversation and make it more real for people. Equally, we need to provide answers that are more hopeful.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

Not just making sustainability real for the public, but making it real for the employees in your organisation. Most companies have big commitments to net zero and all of these things, but in real terms, it needs to be explained. If I'm in marketing, what does that mean for my brands? If I’m in R&D, what does that mean for my day to day? Most talent wants to feel proud of what their employers are doing, and that starts with communicating effectively.

The other challenge is that it needs to come from the top down. Sustainability cannot be something off to the side, it has to be fully integrated into the business as a KPI. A lot of companies are in that struggle to transition from silo to business priority, but sustainability needs to be a normal business conversation – as anything else that impacts a company would be.

How do you see the field evolving over the next 5-10 years, particularly as public awareness of ESG issues continues to grow?

More storytelling, and more regulated storytelling. Anyone in financial or healthcare comms will understand the need to work with lawyers on developing communications. ESG communications is becoming similar as we need to ensure that we avoid being accused of greenwashing or green hushing. That will increase.

And transparency in your storytelling to ensure your consumers, stakeholders and employers will understand what you’re doing in the sustainability space. Anyone who can interpret the regulations and communicate them in a human way will do well.

What advice do you have for someone looking to pivot from a more traditional comms background into sustainability or purpose-driven work?

Start within your own company, because most brands are already doing something towards sustainability. It may be that you start doing some internal comms projects. I can bet that within your company, there's some technical sustainability experts who would love to talk about what they are doing more, even if it's just internal. So that’s a great way to start engaging, and if your company has a corporate commitment, whatever your role is, start doing it.

There are also so many sustainability roles available which can be a real shortcut way to get deep into the field and understand the issues.

But certainly doing it internally starts to build up your muscles and proves you can take those skills externally too. And it’s so important not to let your ego or lack of knowledge get in the way. This space is ever changing - just stay curious.

If you would like to read more about sustainability communications in the industry today, visit our website.

Posted on 29.01.2024

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