Six tactics for optimizing corporate communications on climate action

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, precipitating the risk of even more extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.

Despite the dire situation, there is reason to hope that as more companies across the globe step up to become part of the solution for a problem they help create — we might just stop this crisis before it’s too late. It’s also in the best interest of businesses to take on a leadership role when it comes to climate action, as it builds credibility with pro-climate customers and reduces material risks in the supply chain.

But even as businesses across industries recognize the dual threat and opportunity climate change creates, communicating a plan of action remains almost as difficult as taking action itself. Many companies which excel on integrating sustainability and social impact into their business fail when it comes to telling stories about their good work. Meanwhile, when companies communicate well on climate and other sustainability actions, this can serve both as 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, occupation and more. By identifying your audience you also know where best to meet them with the message. Anheuser-Busch, for example, chose to communicate its plan to purchase 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025 by advertising during the Super Bowl. This enabled the company to reach its customers directly as well as those who prefer microbrews. 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 of their 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 very real risks our global community faces. This doesn’t mean you should use the 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 care and stand behind your mission is to inspire them to join you on your climate action journey. Reformation, a sustainable clothing brand, has made 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

Climate change has become a politically- and emotionally-charged issue, one that is sure to stir passions. This doesn’t mean you need to walk on eggshells, nor strip your storytelling of all vestiges of emotion or controversy. But being aware of the context and the specific concerns of your audiences will ensure you can open up a frank conversation on the climate-related topics and activities most relevant to your business. You can even engage audiences on climate action without 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 to 34, even exceeding internet searches. Today, consumers also 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 to ensure an ongoing dialogue on activities they undertake.

4. Incorporate science-based facts

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, backing up a strong message with science-based facts makes it much more trustworthy than relying on semantics. If you’re among the growing list of companies to put a climate change action plan based off of science-based targets in place and are beginning to operationalize it, it’s time to commence communicating it. This doesn’t mean that you should flood your communications with data points – but backing marketing claims and sustainability-related decisions with real, relevant impact figures should become standard practice to ensure credibility and transparency.

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 was certain to have raised a few eyebrows. To mitigate any anticipated pushback upfront, WeWork made sure to emphasize 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. There is also an expectation for CEOs of companies 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 who have rolled out ambitious carbon neutrality programs must also show how their investments are creating 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 — some are further along than others in addressing the negative ones. While you should give yourself credit where it’s due, don’t be afraid to talk about the areas where you still need to improve. 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 by being open about 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.