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How PR can make a positive contribution to the climate emergency

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that global warming has reached crisis point. PRs must utilise the power of comms to raise awareness and encourage brands, consumers and governments to take positive action before it is too late. Also as individuals, it is up to us to take steps too. Below are ways you and your work can help to make a difference.

Focus on positive emotions

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of agency Ericho Communications: “The most effective way to get anyone to care about an issue is by tapping into their emotions, which is precisely what communication is -reaching people by making real and meaningful connections. One of the biggest issues with climate change communications so far has been the focus on the impending doom, which has inspired apathy instead of the much-needed hope. 

“Focusing on the right emotions is essential for effective communication. And climate change communications is no different - there needs to be a shift in focus from the doom and gloom to actionable steps toward saving our planet. Leaning into hope and communicating with positivity about what can be done is how to rally energy and motivate people and movements to action since that is what will bring about the desired outcome. 

“Keep messaging simple, concise, and remain focused on the facts - no one wins if we destroy the earth. Lead with hope and positivity at the heart of your message. We’re all going to have to work together to reverse climate change. The good news is that it’s not too late, but we need to start now.”

Encourage everyone to take small steps

Rose Allerston, head of sales and marketing at PR agency Smoking Gun: “Some words by zero-waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau have stuck with me. She said: ‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly’.

“The same can be said as we look at our own impact on climate change. I’ve had conversations with many business owners who want to make positive changes in their organisation, but they feel that the task is too big or what they can do won’t be significant enough, and so they end up at a standstill. 

“The truth is that nobody can solve climate change overnight. It’s the job of PRs to encourage people to make good decisions that are in their power and champion change at both ends of the spectrum, from altering how we travel and what we eat, to becoming a carbon neutral company - something we have celebrated with several of our clients.“

It is about education and collaboration

Andy Cameron-Smith, director at agency Social Net Zero: “It is important for us as communicators to help educate our audiences. We have to help people clearly understand what we mean by net zero. It is too easy to assume knowledge. I always look towards answering four key questions when composing content - why the need to change, how we will change, what will be the impact of the change and then what is the benefit of the change. The challenge is to keep telling a simple consistent story against a significant technical, economic and political backdrop.

“The key point to reaching net zero which needs constant amplification is that it can only be delivered in collaboration. This is not a competition, the challenge is too big. No one government, no one organisation and no one technology can deliver decarbonisation alone. Good climate change communications needs to outline the role that everyone has to play. We have to clearly explain why it is important and that this is not change simply for change sakes, but rather for positive benefit for all.”

You need joined-up thinking

Narda Shirley managing director and founder of PR agency Gong: “I don’t think anyone who follows the climate emergency will be surprised by how emphatic the temperature rise warnings are in the IPCC report. What really stood out for us was this sentence which underlines the importance of the ‘just’ part of the ‘just and green transition’: "investing in education, health systems and social justice could help people to cope with the impacts of rising temperatures.” We are finding that clients are moving beyond the focus of communicating net zero commitments and explaining their low carbon/ circular economy transition plans to thinking about the bigger picture and how their CSR and corporate philanthropy activity and programmes fit into the S of ESG in a more holistic way. We are definitely seeing much more joined-up thinking.”

Insist on proof

John Brown, climate misinformation strategy group chair at PRCA: “It sounds flippant, but perhaps the simplest thing a PR can do is to reduce the amount of 'promotion' they do full stop. However, there is a simple action that every PR can take that will, overnight, improve the work we do to tackle the climate crisis. That is to say the phrase, 'prove it'. We have to get comfortable with asking for extraordinary evidence when faced with extraordinary claims from clients and bosses. By doing this, we make room for genuine campaigns and activations that have meaning and fact whilst simultaneously squeezing out the dangerous bullshit that muddies the water and, despite good intentions, fans the flames of the climate crisis.”

Take action immediately

Jon Gerlis, PR and Policy manager at CIPR: “Climate change has been moving up the policy agenda for decades and, in volatile times, long-term issues often get overlooked by more immediate concerns. But when the science is this overwhelming, it is clear we don’t have the luxury of time of our side. What was once a fringe issue is now part of an ESG conversation that - according to the CBI - is “at the top of boardroom agendas everywhere”.

“With a legally binding target of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, the conversation will quickly turn from monitoring and target setting to implementation and reporting progress. 

“Whilst requirements will differ across businesses, sectors and industries, all PR practitioners must understand the issues around climate change, including how their businesses and clients perform, and ensure that they can communicate clearly and openly with stakeholders about their environmental impact and any steps being taken to reduce this.” 

Focus on sectors you understand

Catherine Linch, managing director of PR firm Pinstone: “Engaging on the big issues surrounding climate change is one way PR can keep fuelling the conversation, tapping into what people care about most and generating compelling content that entices a reaction. But for those of us in PR with a specialism that provides outreach to specific audiences, there’s a bigger opportunity around behavioural change. That’s where understanding an audience and its motivations has never been more important. The farming sector is one example. There are farming practices that have greater or lesser climate impacts but what messages will or won’t resonate comes down to having an insight of a farmer’s perspective - ultimately the agricultural industry is unique in that it is often blamed for the problem, but it can and does provide a solution, if farmers engage with the right behaviours. Working with clients spanning water companies, to breed societies and organisations certifying farms for regenerative or organic practices; we work hand in glove with clients’ climate related campaigns that hinge around an appreciation of a complex industry that few others can match.”

Increase your involvement with clients

Samantha Losey, managing director at PR agency Unity: “PR has a vital role to play in the way that the ESG conversation evolves and is communicated, not just by standard means and the day job, but by moving beyond the confines of how agencies and brands usually work together and reshaping that interaction for the modern world. We have an incredible cleantech client at the moment that we are taking through funding and we are in every sales conversation - brand and PR is at the top of the agenda because of how powerful and instrumental it is in making this conversation an impactful one.

“It is our responsibility to not only work with these brands conventionally, but also reconfigure the structure of how we work and conceive brand to audience connectivity in order to impact the world we live in. PR has never been more necessary and the modern comms mix has never been more complicated, an exciting blend.”

Think of how to cut through

Tim Gibbon, founder of communications consultancy Elemental: “Critical and huge issues such as the climate can unfortunately at times, fall into news cycles and can also be centred around events targeted for calendars. And then they're over. That's a challenge given the limited window to build narrative and story.

“Therefore, the dips in interest which can be used to communicate more effectively can be impacted by other news cycles. If this is derailed by other news cycles, it can fall off the table. The impact of climate change is with us every day, so proactive and reaction action needs to be smarter. Otherwise, fatigue can set in on so many levels.

“PRs need more creative ways to communicate without the reliance on approaches such as newsjacking to cut through the noise of competing news cycles. This needs to be pre, during and post the big climate agendas where interest levels can be marred by what could be seen as fatigue.”

Present the business case to clients

Amy Bendall, managing director at agency Pier Marketing: “As an organisation’s ears to the ground, PRs have an enormous opportunity, and I would go as far to say responsibility, to make a difference and instigate real change. If we can present decision-makers with a rock-solid business case for taking positive action regarding climate change, it becomes a no-brainer. We can land the message that it is no longer an option to remain passive. Action is demanded by the customer and making that meaningful change will bring dual benefits to both business and planet.”

Change the way you work

Apart from using comms and your relationships with clients to make a difference, it is important your actual business takes steps too.

Race to net zero

Jessica Hargreaves Co-CEO of marketing agency PrettyGreen and The Producers: “The PR industry is responsible for excessive carbon usage as we basically encourage people to engage with brands to ‘buy more stuff’. However, communications also have the power to change behaviour, but this requires resource, board commitment and KPIs. PrettyGreen set a target for our central business operations to be carbon neutral by June 2022. 

Steps we have taken included joining Ad Net Zero in 2021 to learn about the race to net zero, how to change our processes from brief to activation choices. We are proud to be a climate conscious partner working with SKOOT, a business helping us on our journey to net zero. We understand our carbon footprint using carbon calculators, including industry specific ones to focus on reducing and avoiding co2 emissions across our total business and in campaign activations where possible. Where that isn’t possible, we use SKOOT to reduce our carbon footprint, via verified carbon credits and certified trees.”

Feeling helpless about climate change doesn’t achieve anything. There are actions we can all take and the time to act is right now.

If you're interested in this topic, don't miss PRmoment's free webinar on The contribution of comms to ESG

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