Learnings from a press trip to Iceland: Storytelling to drive environmental action

By Olivia Martins

Research tells us people care about the environmental and ecological crisis but making people act is one of the recurring challenges of sustainability communications. The sheer scale of it is overwhelming. The facts and figures can be so difficult to contemplate, never mind digest and act upon.

News of a new global temperature record being smashed or the impending collapse of yet another ice sheet, rainforest or coral reef can be too enormous and terrifying to take in. Often these disasters happen far away, making it easy for us to distance ourselves from them. And, feeling helpless, we may switch off.


The way forward is to engage people emotionally. And that comes down to great storytelling. While the scale of the unfolding disaster should never be minimised, it must be juxtaposed with relatable, individual stories of action and hope.

First-person, human stories are how to create an emotional connection with an audience. They awaken our empathy and provide a real-life example of how individuals are not just affected by what’s happening to our world, but also capable of taking action to stop the worst potential outcomes.

This was our approach on a recent press trip to Iceland, where outdoor clothing and gear brand Patagonia is campaigning for the government to ban open net-pen salmon farms due to their destructive environmental impact.

Our approach was to introduce our group of European journalists to the activists and NGOs fighting on-the-ground.

Activist testimonials

First, we met with Veiga Grétarsdóttir, the first person to kayak the coast of Iceland. Concerned for the future of her island’s stunning seascapes, she now makes it her mission to kayak up to the huge open net salmon pens and capture photos of the horrific conditions faced by farmed salmon.

Her firsthand account was so powerful. She described not just the conditions in the salmon farms, but also the offers she’s received from the fish industry trying to pay her off. Moreover, she conveyed the depth of her love for nature, which is the driver of her activism.

We also met Benedikta Guðrún Svavarsdottir, an environmental activist who’s leading protests to protect her small town of Seyðisfjörður, surrounded by pristine fjords where the salmon farms are fighting to expand into. When she spoke about the impact on the local community, environment and wildlife, it was profound.

First-person testimonials brought the facts and statistics to life. Reliable and expert local witnesses to the destruction being caused, they showed that in sea salmon farming impacts real people and their beloved landscapes. They brought truth and authenticity to our messages – conveying them better than we ever could. What’s more, they offered hope, in that they were striving against large corporations to advance social justice and drive positive environmental change.

This storytelling was underpinned by a clear call to action to sign the North Atlantic Salmon Fund’s petition to demand an immediate end to the harmful practice of fish-farming in open-net ocean pens. To date the petition is sitting at just over 35,000 signatures with around 7,000 – 8,000 Icelanders and the rest international.

Of course, the press trip and resulting Europe wide media coverage was just one lever pulled in this multi-pronged campaign, but these powerful stories lay at the heart of pretty much of all of this.

Hearts and minds

We won’t address the climate and biological crises without capturing the hearts and minds of people. As they intensify, there’s a risk of mass overwhelm. We can’t let this happen. We must act if we’re to pull ourselves back from the brink. And the way to make us do that is through individual human stories of action and hope.

Human stories are the way to open up people’s imaginations to the possibility of what a better future could look like – and how we get there. They inspire us to act and will continue to be invaluable in successful storytelling.

As sustainability PR’s we are captivated by the issues we touch. If you’d like to find out more about Iceland’s salmon farming problem and what you can do, watch Patagonia’s film here.

Image credit: Patagonia

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