With another Earth Day upon us, I can’t seem to get the chorus of the 1981 iconic Journey song out of my head:
Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to that feelin’
Every year, in late April, companies around the world celebrate all that they’re doing to save the environment. Millions of dollars spent on marketing campaigns showcasing the many ways brands are fighting climate change, or shining a light on what lies ahead if we don’t act fast enough—dying polar bears, melting ice caps, more severe weather events… We’re left with an Earth Day hangover, confused over whether to feel optimistic or terrified, whether to double down on our own climate convictions or bury our heads in the sand. Then many of us forget and go about our lives, until next Earth Day.
My advice—don’t stop believing and hold on to that feeling. Keep the belief that this is a massive global challenge that can be addressed if we act swiftly, and at the same time, hold on to the feeling that unless we all commit to doing more, we’re in serious trouble. We need both hope and fear to move things forward at a faster pace with greater momentum. And more importantly, we need to use that hope and fear to propel things forward, all year round. Now let’s talk about how…
A couple weeks ago I attended the Techonomy Climate conference in Mountain View, CA, an intimate gathering of about 150 climate enthusiasts representing clean energy startups, major tech brands, nonprofits, climate venture capitalists and others like me who work in this space. They kicked off the event with a conversation with Bill McKibbin, an American environmentalist, author, and journalist who has written extensively on the impact of global warming. He did not sugarcoat the challenge ahead—moving away from fossil fuels is the only way forward and we must move faster, he urged. He called on businesses to “rock the boat” and do more than just reduce their own carbon emissions, pressing companies to protest and lobby against the banks “funding the climate crisis” (investing in fossil fuels). His talk was a bleak reality check and I found myself shifting in my seat, trying to get comfortable with what I expected to be a day of grim forecasting and reminders that we’re not doing enough, fast enough.
What happened instead was that we spent the next six hours hearing from a variety of tech companies, climatetech startups, investors and industry experts who are part of the solution and the tone shifted from “we won’t get there unless…” to “look at all that is happening, we may have a chance.” There was a lot of talk about how the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will boost “clean” energy production in North America and provide billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to get there. Technology innovation was heralded as the way out, led by big tech brands and early-stage companies alike. I left with a feeling that, while it is not going to be easy, we might be able to navigate our way through this climate crisis.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that we play—as marketing and communications professionals—in helping to accelerate the pace of progress and slow the impacts of climate change for generations to come. I believe it is pivotal and critical, if done well. To that end, here are my top five tips for making everyday Earth Day in marketing and communications:
- Collaboration is critical to scaling impact.
Companies and individuals need to come together and use all their combined resources to address every area of the climate crisis. The good news is there is already a lot happening and we’ve written about this at Hotwire. What’s worth repeating is it’s time for “radical collaboration” in untapped areas. This is calling on every player, public and private, to take a systems approach to tackling the problem. For those of us in marketing and communications, we need to band together internally and in partnership with our sustainability leadership, investor relations and public affairs colleagues, and People & Culture teams to align on shared goals and strategies. We can also look for new co-marketing opportunities with customers, partners and even competitors. Where can we use the power of marketing communications at scale and where can we divest if we’re not seeing progress or movement in certain areas (one idea: scale back your Earth Day campaigns)?
- Yes, transparency AND authenticity matter.
I know, we’ve been talking about being more transparent in Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) communications for a while, and that’s because it’s worth reinforcing and clarifying. Transparency means talking openly about more than just your progress and successes, it’s also about being honest and genuine about the challenges and setbacks your company has experienced along the way. Disclosing climate action plans is new for many companies and there is a lot we can learn from each other. And rest assured, there are many ways to still be compelling and engaging with target audiences while also being transparent and authentic. For example, data-driven storytelling can humanize what it is that you’re measuring by using the data to validate a part of a human-centered story you’re telling. Also, look for ways to ground your work in facts and figures without overusing complex concepts or drowning it in climate jargon. Your stakeholders will want to quickly grasp what you’re doing, so keeping it simple and straightforward will help. This is as much the case in your annual ESG reporting as it is in your content marketing and corporate communications.
- Greenwash or greenhush? Neither please.
I recently wrote an article about a new concept I learned at the Greenbiz Comms Conference this past February: “Greenhushing.” Greenhushing is the withholding of communication and information on a company’s climate strategy or actions for fear that releasing it will bring some form of reputational risk. It’s on the rise as a politically driven anti-ESG movement gains media attention in the U.S. that is causing climate-conscious companies to retreat and silence themselves. Supporters of greenhushing defend that it’s keeping companies from greenwashing, which means making false, misleading or untrue claims about their sustainability initiatives, but this isn’t always the case. Some companies are holding back for fear they’re not doing enough or that they won’t get brand recognition for what they are doing. This presents a problem. The risk is that it paints an unrealistic picture that climate action is slowing down or that fewer companies are taking meaningful action. It may let the anti-ESG campaigners think that they’re right. My recommendation—if you’re doing the work, talk about it. We need to keep climate communications active to demonstrate that there is in fact growing momentum and progress.
- Different audience, different message.
Clients often ask me to help draft their ESG messaging and every time I respond with “who is the audience?” Simple enough, that’s comms 101. But sometimes the answer is “a general external audience” or “an internal audience” and I have to go back to them again and ask “can you be more specific?” The message we send to an investor versus a customer, and even the message used for a specific demographic of customer, is often wildly different. Gen Z is more likely to understand concepts like net zero while Baby Boomers respond more to the term eco-friendly and will need to have terms like carbon neutral and circularity explained. Even among employees, what you tell an executive, versus manager, versus new employee who is onboarding may be different. Before you embark on any ESG or climate-related communication, break down your core audiences and get really clear about who they are and what they need. Build out personas for them and clarify any pain points or challenges that your communications may address. Then get busy drafting your messaging.
- What’s ahead? Operationalizing ESG (communications).
Among the themes coming out of Techonomy Climate was the need for companies of all sizes to operationalize sustainability by building into every area of the business. I think the same is true for ESG communications. I often hear from clients in marketing and communications that they don’t know how to integrate ESG into their corporate communications or brand marketing. It can feel daunting and something only appropriate for, dare I say it, Earth Day or the launch of the annual ESG Report. At the same time, I hear from my sustainability and ESG clients that they are deprioritized and siloed from marketing and communications. It’s time to break down the walls and demystify ESG communications. All of your core audiences and key stakeholders—from investors, to employees and prospective employees, to customers and prospects—are asking for information about what you’re doing around all areas of ESG, whether it’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging initiatives, health and wellness benefits or environmental action. ESG has shown to influence investment decisions, hiring, employee retention and sales, so operationalizing ESG communications make sound business sense.
In the end, I do think that Earth Day is serving an important purpose, as many of the culture days have done in recent years, by raising awareness of the topic of climate change and the need for more resources to solve it. My hope is that it can go beyond awareness building and inspire action that is sustainable year-round. As Journey sang so well: Don’t stop believin’ and hold on to that feelin’.
If you have questions about these tips or ESG communications in general, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our website here to learn more about our ESG communications consulting services.