The Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘climate emergency’ as their word of the year for 2019. This year has seen a huge upsurge in public attention and interest in climate and environmental issues, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. It’s clear they will be powerful forces in 2020 and beyond.
With the disappointing outcomes of the COP25, those looking for action on the climate and environmental emergencies will continue to pressure whoever and wherever they can, and the media and social media appetite for these stories will remain strong.
Communicators in both corporate and not-for-profit sectors will find themselves at the centre of managing the reputational risks arising from the climate crisis, and navigating opportunities to engage people internally and externally in a positive story on climate action.
So what can businesses and organisations do to take control of the narrative? Here are five questions communications and other senior leaders can ask themselves to help get on the front foot.
1. Have we got a plan?
If you can’t answer yes to this, it’s time to get the top team on the case. A proper climate action plan is going to involve every part of the organisation, so it needs to be owned and driven from the highest level. But you don’t have to have all the answers straight away. Being able to talk about your intention, and why you’re taking the time to do proper analysis and set targets is far better than reaching too quickly for something that is inauthentic and short-term. Do pull together a list of things you’ve already done or doing in the meantime, though – there will be more than you think once you start looking.
2. Are our stakeholders on board?
Any serious effort to reduce your emissions is going to mean working with a wide range of partners, suppliers and stakeholders. They should feel involved in the process, and understand why and how you’ll be talking about what you’re doing. Be aware that making changes could throw a spotlight onto those around you, or leave them with difficult questions to answer. Where possible, agreeing lines and positions will help you avoid public recriminations or disputes.
3. What’s our story?
For people to make sense of what you’re doing, you need to provide a narrative frame. How does this fit with your big picture as an organisation? Being able to draw a clear (and credible) line from your vision and strategy to your action on environment is crucial if you are going to net brand and reputational benefits. On the plus side, the climate crisis encompasses everything! Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics shows that sustainable growth is bounded by environmental and ecological limits, and underpinned by social equality, so it’s core business for everyone to get into the space on the doughnut’s ring where we can prosper – and easy for everyone to make connections to the part they play.
4. How are we going to tell it?
At the risk of stating the obvious, your sustainability story needs to be integrated with the rest of your comms and marketing. Not just so that you can avoid a mistimed or contradictory announcement, but so that it becomes part of building your brand and reputation. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t create a distinct brand or framework for pulling together your sustainability vision – the Marks & Spencer Plan A being the gold-standard case-in-point. Consistent, values-led internal communications should be the foundation of your strategy, helping to embed behaviour change, and giving staff the tools to get the message out on your behalf.
5. What criticism might we face?
In an arena where passions run high, you can’t expect your efforts to be met with universal approval. There will always be someone who thinks you’re not doing enough (in the recent election, Extinction Rebellion protesters glued themselves to the front of the LibDems’ electric battle bus, whose plan to decarbonise by 2045 they deemed insufficiently radical), and almost infinite potential for your activities and relationships to bring accusations of hypocrisy and moral failure. But some criticisms will have more legs than others. Take a proper look at the key areas where you might be exposed to negative comment. Is what you’re doing really compatible with what you’re saying? Consider whether you can make your case successfully to your internal community and neutral observers, rather than die-hard critics. If you can, you should be on solid ground – if not, you’ll need to convince the leadership to change course!
The decade ahead will pose big questions for all of us to meet the challenge of bringing emissions within safe limits by 2030. It will be increasingly hard for organisations to opt out of answering them. Those willing to step up, lead and engage will reap the benefits for brand and reputation.
Do share your comments, and if you’d like to know more drop me a line - I’d love to chat or help you shape up a plan.