As UN Report Raises Stakes, Some Basics of Green Communication

Even before yesterday's (August 9) bombshell report on climate change, some corporations and governments were paying more attention to sustainability and climate change. For companies, part of the motivation was linked to business. Millennials and Gen Z—who tend to spend more than their older counterparts—increasingly seek brands that align with their values. A July 2020 survey found "79 percent of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on a brand’s social responsibility, inclusiveness or environmental impact."

While corporate sustainability and climate change commitments aren't new, they've had a higher profile recently for several reasons.

Yet as sustainability declarations are more frequent, they also receive greater attention. With greater attention comes increased potential for criticism. While promoting green business practices may seem obvious, it's not that simple. Companies are under an extraordinary amount of pressure to get sustainability right. In addition, they're vulnerable should they get it wrong.

So, how can communicators set up companies for success? Fortunately, as with many PR efforts, emphasizing communication basics will help. For example, on sustainability and climate change, lead with authenticity and plan ahead.

First, Do the Work  

If your company isn't environmentally conscious, don't communicate that you are. Do the work first. But do it promptly. Undeniably, sustainability communication is daunting. However, the alternative, remaining silent for too long, is equally, if not more, risky.

When a company isn’t transparent about sustainability practices, consumers will speculate it’s because it has something to hide. Critics will fill in the blanks themselves.

Lead with Authenticity

Communicating sustainability practices that aren't thoughtfully planned or strategically executed can present serious challenges. This is especially true for consumer-facing brands. By definition they tend to be highly visible and inherently subject to intense scrutiny.

In addition, when communicating about sustainability and climate change, substantiate everything. This includes current messaging to past data to future long-term pledges and commitments.

Failing to back up claims or 'walking the walk' can put your brand, marketing campaign and authenticity at risk. The penalties include  litigation and/or unpleasant time in the online court of public opinion. In both situations, your brand's value and reputation face significant damage.

Dot the I's Transparently

If you're off by even 1 percentage point when communicating about greenhouse gas emissions, the internet is going to blast you. Similarly, beware if something you're supporting today isn't aligned with what you pledged five years ago.

Take Coca-Cola for example. Earlier this year, it was sued for green-washing, or deceptive marketing around sustainability. Its infraction was promoting itself as green and simultaneously being the world's top plastic waste generator.

Plan Ahead. Protect Your Brand. 

As we know, the internet can be a scary place. Its inhabitants include agenda-driven, hyperactive online groups, or factions. These factions look for opportunities to call out brands. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Factions influence public opinion for their benefit.  For instance, a faction might accuse a company of green-washing or hijack its sustainability messaging solely as a jumping-off point to amplify the faction’s social or political agenda.

Understanding which groups are most likely to challenge your sustainability program is a first step toward protecting a company's integrity and reputation. It's important to know what might be coming before it takes hold online. This can provide a company more time to decide how and when to react. Or if it should.

Jonathon Morgan is CEO of Yonder