It’s been nearly one year since the US enacted the largest climate bill in history – the Inflation Reduction Act, also known as the IRA. And what a year it’s been. Severe weather and record heat have brought the disastrous impacts of climate change to the forefront of daily life, many companies both established and new rolled out their new emissions-fighting projects and an increasingly polarized business community debated whether ESG should be part of their vernacular. This was also the year it became clear the pivotal role communications plays in all of it.
In general, companies in the clean energy movement fall into one of three categories: established, transitioning and emerging. Established companies already have the infrastructure, a defined marketplace and a proven value proposition. Transitioning and emerging companies, on the other hand, may be working toward achieving these things. Regardless of a company’s position on the continuum, three key communication challenges are common among them all.
The first – and most basic – is determining the language to use when talking about corporate climate change plans, efforts and impacts. The literal choice of words used has the potential to send specific signals to stakeholder groups, whether intentional or not. For example, there is a case to be made that “climate change” should be elevated to “climate crisis” while others prefer “future-proofing” and the use of terms like “flood potential” instead of “sea-level rise.” Unique among language options, “resilience” seems to satisfy most groups. Knowing this and creating a corporate lexicon around environmental programs allows companies to be both intentional and consistent in how they address the market.
The variance in climate change mitigation language is indicative of a changing landscape, which is a second challenge in communicating about company efforts. Stakeholders, and particularly shareholders, expect companies to establish specific goals (generally related to growth and revenue), articulate plans to achieve those goals and report on whether the goals are achieved. However, these efforts may not always be so linear. How we measure these impacts and what we consider to be the “right” efforts are constantly changing. For example, carbon offsets were widely celebrated in their early stages for addressing global warming; today, it’s an industry at risk of integrity issues. Companies focusing on specific energy solutions need to be ready to pivot and adapt to market perceptions, new information, and increasing urgency from all quarters.
A third, but by no means the last challenge in clean energy communication, is the expectation of stakeholders around transparency. Because greenwashing has now taken a solid hold within many organizations of size and significance, consumers have a decreasing level of trust around energy claims. At COP27 in 2022, the UN Secretary-General called out the fact that net-zero commitments can have loopholes wide enough to “drive a diesel truck through” and created an expert panel to address the lack of credibility over net-zero and clean energy targets. More than ever, it’s critical for companies to show their work. The UN’s expert panel noted that plans must be detailed and concrete and promises accountable and transparent. Communicators have a significant role to play in making this a reality.
Communicating about sustainability efforts, whether part of a company’s operations or the purpose of the organization as a whole, is not like communicating about other industries. There is no established playbook, agreed-upon lexicon or common understanding among all players. It requires communicators and executive leadership to apply discipline and flexibility, allow for creativity and transparency, and maintain focus on the end game, even on a changing climate playing field.