Sophie Benger on the growing urgency of a warming planet

Sophie Benger on the growing urgency of a warming planet
Want to learn from the best? Our interview series is the best place to get advice from those with their finger on the pulse of what's new in the comms arena.

Sophie Benger, Senior Communications Manager at The Climate Group, sits down with us to share her advice for cutting through the competitive media landscape. Read on to learn more from her experience, and to uncover the role of communications in environmental services. 


Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance? 

My degree was in English Literature, so I knew I enjoyed writing but I didn't know how I could put my skills to good use or what exactly I wanted to do next. 

My first full-time job after university was as part of an administrative team in the Civil Service and one of the benefits of working in a government department is how easy it can be to move around. I was able to take a look at different roles and quickly realised communications was where I wanted to be. From here you could have really good oversight of everything happening in the department and you could learn new, transferable skills. Not long afterwards I became an assistant press officer at the Department for Transport, where I briefed Ministers and journalists, wrote press releases and supported a range of regional events. I also went on to the on-call press rota, which gave me invaluable experience of thinking on my feet and dealing with potential crises in real-time. I've since moved on to a variety of communications roles but this was a good foundation to build from.


What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular? 

Although communications involves a lot of writing and digital skills, it is primarily about people. Wherever I have worked, I have had one foot in the communications team and another in policy or research. So, it's really important to be able to work with different types of people, understand their priorities and concerns and be able to translate that into effective and targeted communications. External communications are usually what gets noticed but it is the more subtle relationship-building internally that makes the big difference to what works and what doesn't. 

Another useful attribute is the ability to scan a situation and apply your judgement as to the best course of action. This requires listening to a range of opinions and talking things through with colleagues to get a complete overview of an issue and then using this to give considered advice. Listening can be an under-appreciated skill but it is the best way to develop yourself while gaining the context you need to give a measured opinion.


What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out? 

In my current role at the Climate Group, the main challenge is getting heard where you need to be heard. Over the past few years, climate change has become a significant and much-publicised issue and there is no shortage of stories about glaciers melting or emissions levels rising. That means there is a competitive media landscape and you need to have a cutting-edge angle or striking new statistics to cut through what everyone else is saying. 

My work is mainly with state and regional governments where important policies are being introduced to combat climate change in different parts of the world. Policies like this come in gradually and it takes time to see their impact, which can be a difficult story to tell succinctly. The challenge is to show why they matter and to make them relevant to current events so that they resonate with people. 


What one thing would make your working life easier?

Like most communications people I would probably say more time! Right now there are lots of opportunities for new pieces of work we could start and a variety of new directions we could take, but due to the size of the team and funding constraints, we have to focus on what is achievable in the time we have. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is taking place in Glasgow this year, so most of my work is gearing up for that and ensuring we make the most of this opportunity to show why governments and businesses need to act on climate change. But I would love to have more time to develop new ideas for future work and see where they take me.


How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation? 

I'm lucky to work in an organisation where communications is seen as fundamental to what we do. Our mission is to drive climate action, fast, and that means building networks with businesses, governments, NGOs and others to bring about positive change in the world. It also means communicating the action we are taking to encourage others and to build a sense of excitement about what can be achieved. 

Every year we also host Climate Week NYC, which is the world's biggest climate-related event. It showcases the work of our team and our members but also provides a place for debate on all the issues surrounding climate change, from biodiversity loss to social concerns. Within the organisation, we all understand how vital this platform is for communicating one of the biggest challenges we face today and using it to find the solutions people want and need to make things better.


What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications? 

Persistence is vital. Whether you're trying to get buy-in for a project internally or selling a story to media outlets, you have to appreciate that some ideas will work and others won't - and keep trying. It can be dispiriting when you've been planning something for months and it receives low engagement but there are lots of reasons this could be happening: it might be the wrong time, you might need to re-think your target audience or your spokesperson might not be the right fit. Instead of giving up, it's a case of pivoting and looking at things from a different angle. 

I also think it's worth being patient and considering what success looks like in any given situation. Although it's always the dream to have a viral campaign or national media attention, success can be gradual - particularly with brands that aren't yet recognised or ideas that aren't yet mainstream. In communications, the key to achieving your objectives usually starts with getting the basics right. In my role now that has meant finding the right contacts in governments and NGOs and building strong relationships. This will strengthen our brand in the long term and create a support base for it to achieve greater recognition in future.


At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders?

I use a mixture of reporting tools to keep internal teams updated on progress and have brought in more over time. Initially, for example, I was aware that media coverage of my subject area was low, so I introduced a system to record articles mentioning us every month. I then used this to show not just that media coverage was gradually increasing over time but that the outlets running our pieces were the right outlets for us and in a useful range of geographical locations.

However, media monitoring is just one way to measure communications and it can be misleading because it is often used to measure quantity rather than quality. For external communications, it is best to look across media and social media as a whole to understand who is talking about your brand and what they are saying. This not only gives an overview of how you are being received but helps make your case internally where things need to change. If there is a lot of negativity, for instance, it helps you to see where this is coming from and address it or to correct any misleading information. It is also useful to benchmark your organisation against close competitors and to survey both internal and external stakeholders to measure how perceptions change over time.


Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications? 

There has been a considerable amount of discussion around the expanding use of digital tools, and even AI, within the communications mix for some time. This is certain to continue and Covid-19 has sped up the adoption of many technologies, particularly for online events, that might otherwise not have come to prominence. We have seen people recognising the importance of timely and effective communication and adapting tools and techniques to match the changing circumstances.

My big hope for communications though is that it becomes more integrated within organisations and that its strategic potential is recognised. During my career, I have seen the profession become much broader and expectations rise at the same time. Whereas in past years you might have expected to specialise in press work, speechwriting or internal communications, many roles now require a mix of different skills. Hopefully next we will see communications play a greater part in policy development and stimulating behaviour change. With the growing urgency of a warming planet, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to make a difference - and communicators have a great deal to offer.