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C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations, and content & storytelling.

‘This is the beginning of an exploration, not a solution’

Cheryl Clarke has worked as a TV industry publicist and communicator for almost 25 years. She also runs a sustainability consultancy to help her clients engage with environmental and social equity, and to develop and enact leadership strategies that consider the welfare of “all humans, non-humans and our common home.”

Do you have a specific stated mission with regards to the four verticals within The Big Picture Network: inclusivity & diversity; sustainability & environment; business practice & operations; and content & storytelling?
To my mind, these four verticals represent a whole, so can’t be addressed entirely in isolation, since each one influences and informs the others. In a first for the TV industry, Big Picture provides access to a range of valuable resources and allows people starting down the path of positive change to question and engage with like-minded colleagues and competitors, as well as to share best practice and benefit from emerging knowledge. But this platform and these tools are a jumping-off point. This is the beginning of an exploration, not a solution.

What are the biggest challenges?
One of our greatest challenges is to accept that the system we work within is no longer fit for purpose and is, by most definitions, unsustainable. The hopelessness many of us feel when confronted by the challenges we face — environmentally, economically and socially — is not about people being bad, it’s about a system that’s designed to value and measure profit over planetary or human wellbeing.

In the West at least, we operate under an outdated economic model built around concepts that have their roots in colonialism, extraction, consumption and unfettered growth. But it’s in our gift to change that. As storytellers, TV industry people have the power to make huge contributions to culture change and influence meaning-making, which gives us a massive opportunity to guide society’s understanding of the world.

As ‘successful’ people with media careers, we all communicate and think in the current system’s language. But to effect genuine and lasting change, we must be willing to question the status quo — which is a big step away from criticising it. Quite the opposite, in fact. It means considering what we do well and then implementing new ways of communicating internally and externally in order to develop the companywide leadership skills we are going to need to address the challenges ahead.

We are all heavily influenced by what’s perceived as ‘acceptable’ or what ‘sells’ or what reflects and reinforces our corporate messaging — and, frankly, that’s partly responsible for the mess we’re in. In future, we will need very different skillsets to respond to what are and will continue to be very complex problems.

Can you give specific example of a challenge you have faced in this area? What were its core issues and how did you resolve, or try to resolve them?
I’ve recently completed a master’s in sustainable leadership development to allow me to unlearn some of the tropes a management degree can gift you — and the often-paralysing effects of these in the face of real-world problems. The biggest challenge and learning of my working life has been the 15 years I’ve spent attempting to understand the disconnect between people’s personal views and their vision of ‘how things are’ in the workplace, which governs what they deem is possible to achieve — or, more often, impossible.

Our organisations are generally built around a command-and-control, top-down hierarchy, however groovy and creative we like to pretend we are. These structures don’t tend to accommodate radical thinking — in its original ‘roots’ sense of the word — or give employees the space, time or confidence to question, show vulnerability and make a genuine contribution to these issues.

While it’s encouraging that more people are being trained in, for example, green production and avoiding implicit bias, most aren’t given the extra time or budget needed to incorporate these learnings into their working lives. That’s not just a huge waste of time and missed opportunity, but the subsequent eye rolling and cynicism it provokes means we’re almost setting people against the very concepts we’re introducing before we’ve started.

Can you give an example of how you set about trying to influence positive change?
I’ve learned that you need to act where you have the most agency. I’ve been working in telly for years, so I know some of the people who have the power to influence change. On a daily basis, I encourage my clients to prioritise the story of their passions, not their commercial successes. Learning how to articulate passion and conviction and be rock solid in one’s desire to leave something better behind can be very useful, particularly in today’s volatile world. This is a crucial time and I’m sure we’ve all recently experienced what happens when things don’t go according to plan and deliver the fantasy of endless growth.

Now is not the time to call each other out — it’s the time for concerted action. If we want to create a better story for ourselves, we can. It will, however, demand input from every single one of us, from simple conversations that change minds through legislation to the people at the top allowing power to be better distributed within their organisations.

Who has impressed you in terms of how they are working to bring about change and what elements do you find most inspiring?
A lot of people are working very hard on some great initiatives. Albert, for example, has done incredible work in helping the global film and TV industry to tackle its environmental impact and create content that mobilises positive action for the planet. But, as yet, it doesn’t feel as though all these separate efforts have come together in a shared mission. The launch of the Big Picture directory is probably the first time this information has been collated in one place, which is brilliant.

It’s the people with the cojones to look at their own industries, be honest and transparent about what’s wrong with them and do their best to make things better that impress me the most. A great example is an agency called Purpose Disruptors, which is aiming to reshape the advertising and marketing comms industry, in a partnership with econometrics agency Magic Numbers, by calculating ‘advertised emissions.’ This recognises that the more adverts we see, the more stuff we buy, the more stuff gets made and the more emissions are generated — for which ad agencies, ultimately, are responsible. The mission is to cease creating advertising for those products, services and brands that do not align with a net-zero world by 2030.

Purpose Disruptors advocates a clear and direct approach that can be used to inform the decisions behind what work agencies do and for whom. That’s doing something material. It won’t raise an agency’s share price, for now, but that’s not the point of the exercise. We should all have a lot more ‘business case’ fatigue. Who made the original business case for the climate emergency, refugees and potential societal collapse?

Who do you look to for inspiration?
Aboriginal scholar, activist and ‘yarner’ Tyson Yunkaporta, eco-feminist mega-brain Donna Haraway and pioneering scientists brave enough to question received wisdom, such as Canadian microbiologist Suzanne Simard, who discovered the mutually supportive relationship provided by fungi through mycorrhizal relationships in diverse forests.

Suzanne Simard

In the TV industry, there are few people that stand out as living their values. Many people will say David Attenborough when asked, and indisputably, his entire career is a phenomenon. But it’d be great to have a few more names to add to the list.

As Rebecca Solnit, one of the greatest writers on hope, tells us, we need to find the emergence in the climate emergency. I hope Big Picture is a place for us to discover what we can do when all of us push together against the door of hope.

C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations and content & storytelling.

C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations and content & storytelling.


Cheryl Clarke
Cheryl Clarke started her career in commercial media in the early 1990s, working in the TV and technology sectors. She is one of the founding directors of Mushroom Media, a media specialist communications and sustainability consultancy established in 1999. Over the past 15 years, Cheryl’s passion for exploring and developing sustainability policy for the TV and media sectors has led her to offer clients a range of support services aimed at assessing and improving their social and environmental impacts. Cheryl holds a master’s degree in sustainable-leadership development and is working with creative companies to create and define leadership in this field.