Why should PR professionals step up in the fight against the climate crisis?

By Jodie Affleck | June 21, 2021

Many countries, businesses, and individuals all around the world have recognised the urgent need to address their environmental impact. Whilst this is (hopefully) in part driven by moral obligation, it also makes good business sense.

Investing in better performing facilities and more efficient processes helps to reduce energy usage and therefore bills. These benefits can then be passed to the consumer through more competitive price points or increased environmental credentials of products or services which will appeal to increasingly eco-conscious consumers. This is a trend we are particularly seeing within the building and construction sectors— notoriously one of the world’s most carbon heavy industries, accounting for 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018— 11% of which was generated by the manufacturing of building materials and products 

This has led to a variety of inspiring PR and marketing campaigns (I’d recommend checking out this collection by D&AD). However, simply declaring a climate crisis is not the same as really doing something about it. 

Miscommunication and the climate crisis 

In February, I attended a webinar hosted by the PRCA called ‘Why misinformation in the climate crisis is our fault.’ Run by John Brown (CEO and co-founder of Don’t Cry Wolf), it explored the responsibility of PR professionals to navigate the knowledge that exists in relation to the climate crisis to raise awareness and drive tangible positive change.  

‘Misinformation’ was defined as “the spread of false information regardless of intent to deceive.” This is something we explored in relation to the climate crisis in our blog ‘How can we effectively communicate sustainability?’ Whilst some brands have blatantly taken advantage of the selling power of the sustainability label without necessarily delivering a truly sustainable offering, some have simply been misinformed by careless marketing tactics such as fluffy or suggestive language and pictures, overcomplicated jargon, misleading definitions or focusing on one aspect of sustainability with no awareness/consideration of its impact on others. 

The effect of this misinformation is that it fuels denial (“it’s not that big of a deal”) and alarmism (“how can we possibly tackle this?!”). Both of which inevitably lead to inaction from businesses due to either confusion— they don’t know what to believe or what they should be doing— or recklessness— they’ve switched off from the issue either because it’s so overwhelming or they don’t understand how it applies to them, or they implement actions with no real impetus behind it.  

Net zero energy targets are a good example of this. A report done last year by the New Climate Institute analysed the momentum of targets for net-zero emissions across companies, cities, and regions worldwide. It found that the number of net-zero pledges has roughly doubled in less than a year since late 2019. This seems like great news. However, the report found that only 8% of companies have provided interim results on 30-year commitments. 

It’s very easy for company leaders to set sweeping goals with a deadline way off in the future when the market, and indeed themselves, may have moved on. Many will reap the benefits immediately, with consumers keener than ever to ensure their money is going to ethical and responsible businesses. However, without true accountability and commitment, this approach won’t lead to the long-term action we need to change the tide on climate change. 

Image from #ShowYourStripes illustrates the change in temperature in England over the last 100 years due to climate change. The image starts with dark blu stripes gradually getting lighter before becoming interspersed with pale and darker red stripes. The far right of the image is dominated by dark red stripes indicating a huge increase in temperature.

What is our role as communicators? 

As the people who deliver information to market, we have a vital role to play in tackling misinformation and advising our clients on how they can communicate more effectively on their impact. To do this, we must do four key things: 

  1. Motivate

First, we must get our clients motivated to address their impact— whether that’s explaining market trends, showing them the profitability of businesses who care, or simply holding a mirror up to the impact they are having in their sector, business or local area. 

  1. Inform

To inform our clients, we have got to do our research. I’m not talking about googling ‘climate change’ every couple of weeks and reading the top news story regardless of source. I mean we must have our finger on the pulse of the climate crisis discussion and trends, making sure these are data driven rather than what’s in vogue at that time. To do this, we need to work with trusted sources and really do the research, never assuming knowledge.  

  1. Think ahead

We need to ensure that improvement is perpetual and not merely a PR stunt (refer to Net Zero example above!). Don’t be afraid to ask questions, get into the details of the action, challenge definitions or ask for a reporting timeline. Remind them that it is your job to protect and advance their business reputation in the long term and a one-off, ad-hoc offsetting campaign will only go so far. 

  1. Be critical

It’s uncomfortable but we have got to call out bogus claims or unauthentic action. We have to let our clients know that it is okay to get it wrong or face barriers to progress. By being transparent about them, you can not only able to improve and move ahead with confidence, but you can also head off any people who are sceptical about your intent and show them what it possible with determination. 

 

What is Smith Goodfellow doing to address this? 

The climate crisis is central to our work as a construction specialist PR agency. As I illustrated in the opening of this post, the sector has an incredible impact on our planet, and we have been working with clients to discuss these issues for decades. However, there is new information and legislation coming to the market all the time and we recognise our responsibility to not only keep up to date with this, but to encourage all our clients, both new and old, big and small, to engage with the conversation. 

We also recognise that one of the biggest ways we can make a difference is to lead by example, showing even the smallest businesses that owning your impact and working to make it a positive one can be profitable and rewarding. To do this, we are implementing 12-month impact assessment and reporting process, designed to not only define and celebrate where we are right now, but to give us a clear indication of where we need to improve. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing the details of this project and outlining our commitments— so keep your eyes peeled! 

Featured images are taken from https://showyourstripes.info and illustrate the changing temperature in England over the last 100 years. You can see and download the graphic for your region by visiting the website.

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