3 reasons why climate change should be a priority for corporate communications

by | Apr 22, 2021 | Public Relations

Communicators have their hands full when it comes to helping companies understand and respond to critical issues that have taken center stage over the last year. A recent 2021 Global Communication Report from the University of Southern California explores “new activism” and the impact it will have on the communications field looking ahead.

Consider these insights based on USC’s survey of PR professionals:

  • 72 percent predict that activists will place more demands on U.S. corporations
  • 70 percent predict employee expectations of company role in society will increase

Bottom line: consumers and employees expect companies to play a bigger role in society. We’re already seeing that emerge this year with the voting rights attacks in Georgia, but here’s what surprised me about USC’s survey results:

Climate change was the #1 issue that PR pros expected to see increased activism around; 86 percent of survey respondents believe that. But only 26 percent of communicators said it was an issue their company will take a public stand on…Twenty. Six. Percent.

Climate change is complex, and solutions can be technical, nuanced, and difficult to communicate. But consider this: the number of commitments to reach net zero emissions has roughly doubled in less than a year from local governments and companies. Companies representing trillions of dollars in revenue are putting significant resources behind this issue. Sustainability may have been a reputational consideration in the past, but in today’s world it’s a business issue that requires serious attention.

Here are three reasons communicators need to prioritize climate change as part of their work:

1. You probably made a public climate commitment

If your company has published climate goals, sustainability targets, ESG commitments or any other forward-looking work related to the environment, the company is going to be pressed on progress.

What you can do: Connect with your sustainability leads and get a very clear sense of 1) Timing and roll out of projects to reach sustainability/climate goals and 2) Get a handle on the metrics. How companies are measuring is a priority message for communicators. Some companies are, understandably, being asked about leaning into carbon offsets and emissions avoided numbers. Communicators need to understand vulnerabilities, communicate why your company is measuring progress in a certain way, and what your company’s path forward looks like.

2. Metrics matter

Reporters, analysts, shareholders, and customers to some extent are all watching to see if companies are on target to hit climate goals. If you’re not, be transparent about it and explain where barriers or unanticipated challenges have arisen and how you are course correcting.

A December 2020 Bloomberg Green analysis of how companies did against their 2020 climate targets showed 138 of 187 different pledges have been met or were on track to be met. Expect more of this coverage in the future, especially as we get closer to COP26. You’ll want to get ahead of it.

What you can do: Sharing a whole bunch of data is dry and not compelling. What is the data that matters? Get regular updates on metrics and consider reporting out to employees. Sustainability progress happens in large part because employees are bought in to what needs to get done. Help them see progress and where the company is trying to get. Also, find ways to show sustainability isn’t another initiative an employee needs to be aware of, help them see how the work they do is already contributing.

3. Climate change is intersectional

Just like the USC survey, we like to put things into silos—climate change, racial justice, healthcare, immigration, etc. Climate change intersects almost every other issue out there and communicators need to consider that as they are helping executives understand how to talk about this issue.

Consider that in 2019 it’s estimated that more than one million Americans were displaced because of weather-related disasters. It’s a labor issue because you’re losing access to employees and jobs may disappear due to damage in the area. It’s a racial issue because we know the effects of climate change disproportionately impact communities of color. It’s a healthcare issue because environmental health impacts human health.

So, this Earth Day, get your team together to examine how communications can better support and prioritize your company’s communication around climate change. And if you need help getting started, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Sarah Stanley
Sarah Stanley is Vice President of Ruder Finn RF Relate.


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