Global Warming, Reaches the Boardroom: Increasingly, Public Awareness of Climate Change Means Better PR Efforts Are Needed to Address Concerns

Article excerpt

Given the global preoccupation with climate change, it's no surprise that corporate marketers have moved quickly to place "green" products front and center. Automobile companies boast climate-friendly, best-in-class gas mileage, and oil companies spend more on telling consumers what they're doing to protect the environment than they do on selling their products.

But just as ad agencies are being challenged to respond to climate change mania, so are communication practitioners. In fact, you could argue that never before has so much been at stake for the corporate communication industry.

While corporate social responsibility (CSR) ill its many incarnations evolved relatively slowly--allowing communicators to come to terms with how it affected their work--climate change has become a sociopolitical phenomenon with PR implications that are still relatively new and largely unknown.

What does this mean for communicators? Some organizations believe that they don't contribute to climate change and therefore have nothing to communicate. That is a mistake. A small law firm, for example, could argue that its operations have no direct impact on global pollution. But the reams of paper it uses do, and the automobiles driven by partners and staff do, and the air conditioning that cools their offices, and the lights they leave on at night--the list goes on.

This type of scrutiny goes way beyond what we've traditionally regarded as CSR. Now we're talking about personal behavior and habits. For smaller organizations that are not overt polluters, these are the types of issues that need to be considered when responding to climate change. They will increasingly become measures of good corporate citizenship and could play a significant role in consumer choice.

Equally important is knowing how to respond when critics come calling. It's not inconceivable that environmental activist groups emboldened by the mainstreaming of green issues, will start asking questions about the business operations of more than just the usual suspects.

Solitaire Townsend, managing director of London-based Futerra Sustainability Communications, believes communicating about responsible business practices is more of a challenge as audiences become increasingly aware of ethical issues, in a 6 February article for ClimateChangeCorp.com, a web site of climate change news for the business community, she said that growing interest in climate change by the marketing community is evidence that CSR has become mainstream.

"It is a relief," she writes, "to find a whole page dedicated to avoiding greenwash. Indeed the Advertising Standards Authority has begun to flex its muscles on green claims and CSR, noting that sweeping statements such as 'environmentally friendly' or 'zero environmental legacy' will be challenged."

Communicators who work for companies that already have good CSR programs in place probably don't need to do much; those whose companies don't have cogent CSR policies should seriously consider doing something about it. But that doesn't mean rushing head-long into an ill-conceived program that neither addresses the real issues of climate change nor serves the best interests of the organization. The following steps are a guide to getting on top of climate change in a business setting.

Research and understand the issue. Make sure you know what climate change is and what it's doing to the planet. Find out what regulators arc doing and saying that could affect your organization. Do your own research on how your organization and your business sector affect climate change. If you have the resources for further research, do independent polling to see what stakeholders think of your performance.

Present your findings to your organization's leadership. Look carefully at what's possible and what's not--strategically and operationally--and consider how you would communicate actions (or inaction) to stakeholders. …