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Doing Comms: What does a Communications Advisor Do All Day?

Iceberg from Humboldt Glacier, Kane Basin, Nares Straight, Greenland.

Photo: Shadows from the Tailenguak Cliffs fall on Iceberg from Humboldt Glacier, Kane Basin, Nares Straight, Greenland.© Dave Walsh – More details

I do comms and strategy. That is, I write and communicate, mostly on environmental campaigns and science issues, as well devising ways to help organisations achieve their ambitions. As people – friends, family, even clients – are often perplexed as to what this involves, I thought I’d have a go at actually communicating about what I do all day.

Doing comms does include traditional press officer tasks – like pushing “send” on media releases and haranguing overworked journalists. Getting a story published, however is only part of the job. Communications shouldn’t happen as an afterthought or in isolation, or for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how many centillions of people Like, Retweet or even read (heaven forbid) what I’ve just catapulted out into the ether, if this frenzy of attention cannot be converted into some kind of real world action.

When I say action, I’m not necessarily demanding that everyone takes to the streets – but I do want pressure where it can foment change – ideally for the better- ideally one for the better. If it helps contribute to a narrative that needs pushing in the right direction (“we need to end fossil fuel use”, “the EU must end overfishing”, “plastic bags are bad for the environment” etc.) that’s good. If a policymaker or company executive feels the weight of media – and by extension, public – pressure from a story, even better. If they digest, consider and then act to do the right thing – job done.

But wait. Before all that there’s the strategy, a way of setting course for an ambitious but reachable destination, supplied with whatever time and resources are available – ideally to stop a bad thing happening, or to kick start a process that will do some good in the world.

To get the results that an organisation or campaign needs, like get a ban on something at the forthcoming international meeting; X percent reduction in carbon emissions by Y date; or convince company A to end doing something bad by date B, a range of activities need to be wheeled out.

Every situation is different – but it may include lobbying of politicians and bureaucrats, enabling citizens through petitions and protests, and getting press coverage. Making sure a story is spread throughout national, international and social media not only helps highlight a problem, but can encourage ordinary people, business leaders and policy makers that change can and will happen, through determination and harnessing of political will. By taking political discourse into the public sphere, decision makers – such as a reluctant government minister – can realise that the cat is out of the bag – a matter previously discussed only in rarefied political environments is now in the public domain, and has to be faced up to – and ideally dealt with. So they might as well be part of the solution.

The communications that drive this kind of political change or broader scientific understanding must not only be clear, and ethically and scientifically rock-solid, they must illustrate the overall  importance and political, national or other context of the issue, in language that non-experts can understand. The signal can be honed and polished, but the message must never be be lost or dumbed-down. There’s a knack to layering information so that a reader, viewer or listener can learn about a subject, while they’re consuming the story.


In April, I visited the International Maritime Organization’s Headquarters in London (IMO), the UN body that governs global shipping, for a meeting of its Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC72). Amongst the issues on the agenda was a proposal to ban heavy fuel oil (HFO) – the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel – from Arctic shipping. I was there as communications advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 18 NGOs campaigning for a ban on HFO.

Pancake ice on Arctic Sea Ice
Pancake Ice and floes – on Arctic Sea Ice, Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard, September 2009. In August 2012, Arctic sea ice hit a record minimum – this will affect weather and the global climate, as the ice cap reflects much of the sun’s solar energy back into to space. With sea ice melting away, the dark water below absorbs more solar energy, which in turn causes more melting.

The challenge of illustrating the environmental risks posed by an Arctic shipping disaster is relatively easy. It’s not difficult to conjure up images of the cataclysmic outcome of thousands of tonnes of black oil spreading across an ocean, clinging to sea ice and icebergs.

Telling the story of how burning fossil fuels in the Arctic accelerates the ice melt is more complex, but at least can be visualised. Imagine black carbon particles, puffed out of ship exhausts, before falling on snow and ice. Instead of bouncing the solar radiation back into space, this black stuff absorbs the heat of the sun, melting the ice and exposing the dark waters below, which in turn absorbs yet more heat, which warms up the ocean even more, melts more ice, and potentially opening up more routes for yet shipping.

The fix for this is cinch. Ban ships from carrying and burning HFO in the Arctic.

However, the path to achieve this fix is not so straightforward, and hard to explain (never mind tweet). When someone – say, a journalist, or a friend – asks me about how to get a ban on HFO, do they really want to hear jargon-packed monolog on how “the IMO first needs to agree on setting forth on a work plan regarding the mitigation of the risks of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, then it goes to the scientific committee and…”

Are you still reading?

When I started helping develop communications around the need to ban heavy fuel oil back in 2016, it was necessary to find a balance between broadly communicating the risks around the very real potential of an Arctic oil spill, focussing on the technical aspects of regulatory and economic outcomes of a ban to shipping media, and convincing environmental journalists that the ban is both necessary and politically achievable.

To do this, I have had to pull the HFO issue out of the rarefied environment of the IMO into public discourse, so that it could be discussed in shipping, environmental and Arctic media not just as a nice to have (that we might phase it out) but as a must have – then continuing the discussion so that the inevitability of a ban becomes rooted in people’s minds. Decision-makers and their advisors – hopefully – come to see the ban, not as some weird fringe topic being wielded by a bunch of polar-bear-loving-hippies, but as a win-win solution; as something achievable, politically desirable and quite simply, a good thing.

This time last year, we could talk about a “phase out” of HFO from the Arctic – any mention of a ban was unpalatable politically, or within the shipping world. But by July 2017, when IMO member states supported “a proposal to identify measures which will mitigate the risks posed by the use of heavy fuel in Arctic waters”, the idea of a ban starting becoming relatively mainstream. When national governments begin to make stronger demands than NGOs, you know you’re on to something.

The discourse – with help from the network of organisations that make up the Clean Arctic Alliance, and progressive elements within national governments and the shipping industry – transformed from “this can’t be done” to “a phase out is possible”, to “a ban is the best way to mitigate the effects of HFO in the Arctic to, finally, “a ban is the only way forward”.

Before the April meeting, the HFO ban was proposed by Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the US. During the meeting, supported for the ban came from Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Estonia, Ireland, Japan, the League of Arab States, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK.

I can’t claim that all of these countries support a ban on heavy fuel oil from the Arctic simply because they read a quote from us, but I do believe that our communications work helped pave the way. Perhaps it was just the right time – a HFO ban was discussed a meeting when IMO member states were debating ways to start cleaning the shipping industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, and our team was busy talking to country representatives during the coffee breaks.  Perhaps they were persuaded by the scientists, campaigners, shipping industry representatives and indigenous leaders who spoke up – and spoke strongly in favour of a HFO ban during the two well-attended side events at the IMO, not least Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an environmental, cultural and human rights advocate from Canada, who delivered a powerful and moving speech:

“Everyone benefits from a frozen Arctic and that everything is connected and we can no longer separate the importance and value of the Arctic from the sustainable growth of economies around the world. Everything is connected through our common atmosphere, not to mention our common spirit and humanity. What affects another, affects us all. We know that as the Arctic melts, other places such as the Small Island Developing States are sinking.”

Read more in our blog about the heavy fuel oil ban – The World’s Dirtiest Fuel will be Banned from Arctic Shipping. Here’s How – By Sian Prior and Dave Walsh

Dave Walsh is an communications and strategy consultant based in Barcelona. He advises a number of campaigns and institutions, including the Clean Arctic Alliance and Our Fish, and is board member of The Arctic Institute.