Six tactics for optimizing corporate communications on climate action

Things are heating up

Climate change has returned to the forefront of business, government, and personal conversations after years on the backburner. This is thanks in no small part to mounting climate disasters, such as 2018’s destructive California wildfires and other extreme weather events across the world. This has sparked unprecedented interest for action. From the Global Climate Action Summit to more recent talk of a “Green New Deal,” the conversation around climate has never been hotter.

And neither has the planet — 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record, according to NOAA, ranking just behind 2016 (warmest), 2015 (second warmest) and 2017 (third warmest). Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) said the planet will reach the crucial threshold of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030. This precipitates the risk of more extreme drought, wildfires, floods, and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.

The rise of CSR

The facts are daunting but there are signs of hope. More and more companies across the globe are stepping up to become part of the solution for a problem they helped create. Additionally, taking on a leadership role in climate action builds credibility with pro-climate customers and reduces material risks in the supply chain. 

While it’s great businesses across industries are wrestling with the dual threat and opportunity climate change creates, communicating a plan of action remains almost as difficult as taking action. Many companies that excel on integrating sustainability and social impact into their business fail in telling stories about their good work. Communicating well on sustainability actions can serve as both a force multiplier for achieving sustainability goals and a competitive edge to stand out.

Indeed, communications can make or break a company’s sustainability strategy. Here’s what your business should keep in mind when communicating on climate.

1. Know your audience

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to communicating about climate change and your company’s role in tackling it. Ask yourself who you are targeting — everyday consumers, businesses, policymakers? And be sure to get granular — you can narrow each audience down even further to include factors like socioeconomic background, gender, and occupation. By identifying your audience you know where to meet them with the message.

Anheuser-Busch chose to communicate its plan to purchase 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025 by advertising during the Super Bowl. The unofficial American holiday that engages brew-lovers and others alike, this moment was key to announce these sustainable plans to a massive and relevant audience. In an effort to inject sustainability efforts more prominently into their customers’ purchasing journey, the LEGO Group added “Packaging from responsible sources” on the back of all LEGO products. This was done in parallel with launching a new LEGO set that comprises a fully functioning wind turbine with bricks made from plants.

2. Make it tangible

Climate change can be a nebulous concept, and showing your audience first-hand impacts of both action (or inaction) can make it more salient. From farmers and fishermen losing their livelihoods during extreme droughts to homeowners seeing their properties crumble in a flood – these are the risks our global community faces. However, this doesn’t mean you should use climate tragedies to sell your product or service. It means you should strive to ground your lofty climate communications in the real world. This forms your story’s beating heart.

Brands can also inspire others to address the consequences of climate change. For example, Timberland is calling on its consumers to put their best boot forward and join them in doing the right for the outdoors that they explore. The American manufacturer and retailer of outdoor footwear is sharing stories from the cities it is greening – alongside its efforts to reduce GHG emissions, procure renewable energy, and support nature-driven solutions to climate mitigation.

The purpose of getting your audience to stand behind your mission is to inspire them to join you on your climate action journey. Reformation, a sustainable clothing brand, makes that participation easy by directly integrating carbon offsets as part of the shopping experience. UCapture, a green tech platform, aims to mainstream this approach by channeling funds from online shopping to climate protection projects. Joining the climate revolution is becoming increasingly easier for the average consumer.

3. Create a conversation, not an argument

In recent years, climate change has distorted into a politically and emotionally-charged issue. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you need to walk on eggshells, nor strip your storytelling of vestiges of emotion or controversy. Staying conscious of the context and the specific concerns of your audience will ensure you can open up a frank conversation on the climate-related topics and activities most relevant to your business. There are even ways to engage audiences on climate action without explicitly mentioning climate change. Some research suggests that raising health concerns is a more effective way to start a climate-related dialogue in the U.S.

Social media is an easy platform for firms to create two-way dialogues and deliver climate communications directly to your various audiences. In 2018, social media was the leading source of online news stories for people ages 18-34, even exceeding internet searches. Today, consumers expect authenticity and responsiveness from the businesses with which they engage.

Companies including Microsoft, International Paper, and Home Depot have been quick to include social media channels into their sustainability and climate communications mix. This cultivates an ongoing dialogue on actions they undertake.

4. Incorporate science-based facts

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, backing up a powerful message with science-based facts makes it much more trustworthy than relying on semantics. If you’re among the growing list of companies beginning to operationalize a science-based climate change action plan, it’s time to start communicating it. We’re not suggesting to flood your communications with data points. But backing marketing claims and sustainability-related decisions with real, relevant impact figures should become standard practice to be credible and transparent.

Co-working startup WeWork recently announced a controversial new environmental policy to no longer serve meat at its corporate events. This internal memo reached WeWork’s 200,000 members and 6,000 staff and definitely raised a few eyebrows. To mitigate anticipated pushback upfront, WeWork emphasized how its decision was in line with new scientific research on the positive environmental impacts that cutting meat consumption can have, especially when done collectively. The company explained that by enforcing this new environmental policy it could reduce its climate impact by more than 445 million pounds of CO2 by eliminating meat — not to mention saving billions of gallons of water and millions of animal lives.

5. Lead with impact

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. CEOs are expected to speak up and lead change. This means more transparency in what companies communicate and how they communicate. Your audience needs to be convinced that you are really walking the walk. Sound operational evidence and verified impact data is one way to provide that assurance.

Companies that have rolled out ambitious carbon neutrality programs must also show how their investments create real impact on the ground. Signify, the world leader in lighting solutions, has done this by consistently tracking and showing the impacts of the carbon reduction projects it supports as part of its corporate climate action initiative.

6. Be vulnerable

All companies have social and environmental impacts and some are further along than others in addressing the negative outcomes. While you should give yourself credit where it’s due, don’t shy away from talking about areas that need improvement. Likewise, don’t be afraid to talk about your flaws and failures. Vulnerability is a source of strength. Acknowledging your climate impacts gives you license to talk about acting on them.

Fear of falling short on commitments is the number one reason companies don’t set ambitious goals in the first place. But creating a master narrative of constant improvement and openly addressing the challenges you face will help ensure the authenticity of your communications around climate action.

The bottom line: communications on climate action needs to be grounded in strategic, results-based initiatives — always. These six approaches will help ensure that your communications are impactful in reinforcing your company’s sustainability strategy.

This article was co-authored by Nadia Kahkonen and Jonathan Hanwit.

Nadia Kahkonen is Head of Communications at South Pole, a leading sustainability consultancy and globally recognized developer of climate action projects.

Jonathan Hanwit is CEO and Founder of ThinkParallax, a branding and communications agency on a mission to better the world by articulating and amplifying brands’ sustainability impact.