The role of the interpreter in a world of mixed narratives
Having worked in the social purpose / corporate responsibility (CR) / corporate sustainability space for a number of years, nothing excites me more than our agenda being discussed and acted on, credibly, in the board room these days.
How long we’ve waited for the kick up the backside that the likes of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has brought, spring-boarding that tabled emissions targets discussion right to the top of the next board meeting agenda.
Even more exciting? Being brought in to the discussion and listened to.
Now, more than ever, CR teams have the prerogative to flex their informed muscles and demonstrate the breadth of vision they have. To be successful in this, we need to help the business speak the same language.
I found myself, after a restructure in the then-called Responsibility team, leading the environmental strategy at ITV within our newly named Social Purpose team 18 months ago. With a background in corporate responsibility strategy and communications, this was a welcome shift. A chance to be a practitioner in a specific area of the smorgasbord that is CR.
The task at hand? Put simply, use ITV’s people, partners and programmes to improve environmental impact – both on and off screen.
I had just launched the new Social Purpose strategy, had credible environmental targets to roll out to the business and a new corporate purpose – More than TV – that complemented the work of the Social Purpose strategy beautifully. I was lucky to have a set up that seemed primed for success.
I soon realised this role requires equal amounts of technical and scientific rigour, acute communication and influencing prowess, abundance of creativity and an ability to understand the world from the perspective of your most important stakeholder at the time.
The most useful way of describing it? Being the interpreter through which everyone in the business ends up understanding, appreciating and eventually speaking the same language.
The only way to get to that common language is by being able to speak, or at least attempt, everyone else’s language first.
Much like Pidgin English, or any other language, pidgin Sustainability and pidgin Responsibility fuse two languages – in this case the language of the ordinary person and the language of the expert. But before you can even attempt pidgin anything, you need to know which languages actually exist in your organisation.
Many CR professionals will relate to this. For some, you are one of the only teams in the business that looks holistically across the organisation – tying together the nuggets of brilliance and shared learnings from other business areas, bringing people into the same room to collectively thrash out a solution to that ‘impossible task’ that’s already been solved elsewhere in the business.
You’re the conduit through which teams look beyond their immediate influence, to the wider implications of what their everyday decisions actually result in.
Take a procurement decision that ties you into a contract for the next 15 years. If you don’t ask the right questions right now, such as checking a supplier has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 or set science-based targets, you’ll find yourself in a tricky situation when your own science-based targets can’t be met because of this.
Elevating the importance of the everyday decision is crucial.
To really tackle the environmental agenda, however, requires a cultural approach to what a ‘normal’ lifestyle is today. This is where the ‘on and off screen’ focus of my role gets rather interesting.
On the one hand, I find myself discussing the cleaner, smarter operational approaches in how ‘the machine’ of ITV and its partners functions – data transmission, energy use, waste management – and on the other hand, working with the Coronation Street researchers on what constitutes a more sustainable lifestyle to enable Corrie writers to build smarter behaviours into the stories and narratives consumed by millions of people every week.
My role demands a talent both for informing hard infrastructural change and designing soft cultural influence on what constitutes a more sustainable lifestyle.
It’s this latter part of my role that I find myself leaning on, even in the depths of climate change risk framework discussions or scope 3 emissions calculations. It’s the human nature of the environmental agenda that makes it make sense.
Reducing the amount of crap your organisation creates – or making sure the suppliers you work with know who is making their products, where and how. Those conversations might seem technical, but they are underpinned by the very human attitude of ‘giving a damn’, or at the very least, ‘having your sh*t together’. How you phrase those discussions, how you speak that language and then translate it, helps join the dots between the cultural changes and technical building blocks that will get you there.
How to reframe the rhetoric of sustainability has been the common thread throughout my career, which is what I believe has navigated me to my role here at ITV.
Having the opportunity to apply this challenge to internal ITV discussions, and translate the drivers for change in a way that each stakeholder relates to, is certainly exciting. But it’s the on-screen element that gets me up in the morning.
Building climate change considerations into cultural norms, making lower impact lifestyles aspirational, by redefining what an ‘aspirational’ life is – that’s how we’ll reach Joe Bloggs having a pint in the pub, that’s how we’ll reach the ITV viewer sat at home on the sofa, and that’s how we’ll normalise a sustainable lifestyle for everyone, not just those privileged enough to be able to care.
The hard-graft, technical solutions to lowering impacts can only be used hand in hand with the cultural shifts needed to make those solutions stick for the long term.
I’m certain, collectively, we’ll be able to craft a narrative that makes lower impact lifestyles aspirational and normal, whether you’re a University Challenge or a Love Island viewer (both, I’ll have you know, produced by ITV!).
For those working in this space, it comes down to being the interpreter that makes your business, and the nation, speak the same language. Since only once we understand each other, can we act together.
Julia Giannini is a Senior Manager, Social Purpose, ITV.