2023 is set up to be a significant year for the advancement of energy delivery and renewable power generation. Last year saw the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act with major implications for clean energy programs, and companies of all sizes are continuing to invest in ESG goals at the demand of multiple stakeholders, including consumers, employees and investors.
At the same time, energy providers are challenged with how to balance the desire for a cleaner future with the cost pressures that come with inflation, along with the reliability and infrastructure needs of a growing population at risk of severe weather or other challenges, like fuel costs.
Below are three key communication trends we see emerging out of these opportunities and pressures in the coming year.
Social issues do not advance without cooperation between the public, private and non-profit sectors, and energy issues are no different. Energy companies of every type are looking toward collaboration to drive results with higher impact and reach. As communicators, we have a key role in helping to ensure these partnerships are of meaningful value and effectively communicated to stakeholders. When establishing partnerships, we advise companies to consider the following:
- Project partner identification: Effective collaborations are based on commonalities as well as differences. It’s important to identify these from the outset to understand what a company has to offer and which partners may be best suited for any given project.
- Shared objectives: Courting partners require clarity about what outcomes are desired and what each entity has to offer at each stage of the project. Defining objectives early and reviewing them often is key to achieving support, maintaining focus and delivering meaningful results.
- Managing expectations: Every collaboration has its challenges, so it is important to manage expectations such that complications are anticipated, rather than a surprise. Further, external stakeholders will have their own perspective on the process, which communications should help set and define.
- Amplifying successes: The purpose of any collaboration is to achieve more together than could be achieved on one’s own. Understanding the unique stakeholder groups, corporate pressures and desired visibility among partners allows for a communications plan to be created that positions each for success.
As more companies announce net-zero commitments, scrutiny is also rising with governments, policy groups and research organizations seeking greater accountability. Stakeholders, too, no longer accept publicized environmental commitments at face value.
For example, Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor reports on how companies track and report greenhouse gas emissions, including reduction targets, current programs, and publicized plans. Based on their climate pledges, companies are ranked using five integrity levels, from very low to high. Last year, the report found that the climate pledges of BMW, Nestlé, Unilever, Ikea, Google, Walmart and Volkswagen—among others—presented very low or low integrity. It is also worth noting that no companies were ranked as having high-integrity efforts to reduce emissions.
Therefore, companies that wish to benefit from the benefits and goodwill associated with climate efforts must communicate with care, employing the following strategies:
- Specificity: Companies need to understand exactly what they are communicating when using specific phrases to avoid unintentional greenwashing. Further, those seeking the benefits of having environmental programs in place must provide proactive, specific, comparative and verifiable details to support their claims.
- Transparency: A company must be open to sharing the full picture involved with its environmental efforts. This includes identifying missed targets and subsequent program adjustments, avoiding omission of areas that may not be meeting stated goals, and accepting third-party verification from trusted sources, including the media.
- Participation: Allowing consumers and other stakeholders to participate in a company’s environmental efforts helps support their veracity. For example, consumers may choose a product that meets green standards but is delivered or packaged in a way that creates environmental harm. Noting this and inviting consumers to choose an alternative, greener form of delivery or packaging reinforces the integrity of the company’s product claims.
There is no industry that is not impacted by increasing volatility, whether related to supply chains, activism, disinformation or climate chaos. However, continuity in energy delivery sits at the top of stakeholder expectations. Increasingly, there is an imperative for energy providers to manage unexpected and disruptive occurrences in a way that engenders confidence, support and trust, backed by the following areas:
- Predictive analysis: Communicators must be responsible for more than what happens in the moment. It is also our responsibility to look forward, analyze trends and plan for the “what if” in a way that supports realistic events. Capturing past events, industry occurrences and global activity, as well as employing predictive analytic tools, allows us to help guide and respond.
- Proactive resilience: It is only a matter of time before a system fails, a cyberattack occurs or a weather event happens. Communicating with stakeholders about the likelihood of something occurring before it does is important to set expectations. Similarly, proactively sharing information about investments in system hardening, cybersecurity, facility maintenance and operational improvements is necessary to establish trust before a worst-case scenario.
- Reactive communication: There is no end to the examples of companies, energy and renewable included, who have compounded difficult moments with a failure to communicate effectively. Disruption is challenging enough to manage without compounding it by missing the need for effective stakeholder communication. This means communication plans must be created in advance, practiced in simulations and reviewed regularly to support seamless implementation when needed.
Energy companies are generally asset-heavy businesses that operate within extensive and expensive infrastructures. Missing the mark on communications only compounds the challenges that are already inherent in the sector and need not occur with proper strategy, planning, and engagement in place. In fact, effective communications can help offset the increasing change, scrutiny and volatility that will certainly impact the industry to a greater degree going forward.