The shifting role of communicators as agents of the transition

Headland clients and contacts heard last week from Akshat Rathi, leading climate journalist at Bloomberg, following the launch of his new book, Climate Capitalism. He talked optimistically about the people and personalities powering the climate transition – the entrepreneurs, innovators, campaigners and many more. We discussed the challenges companies face in communicating on climate when the narratives around the issue are so often polarised. This inspired me to reflect on the often-underestimated role of communications and corporate affairs in contributing meaningfully to corporate climate action.

Advocates for transparency

As 2025 climate targets loom close, scrutiny of progress on climate goals is coming into sharp focus and corporate affairs plays an important role in shaping the response. The function is often an advocate for transparency and can help companies to get comfortable in the face of ambiguity, in displaying a sense of openness and vulnerability when changes are necessary.

If targets aren’t going to be met and have to be rebased, communicators can lead the charge in helping companies to clearly frame the thinking behind those targets; where material progress has been made, and where it hasn’t; what’s changed externally and internally since the targets were set; what’s been learned along the way; and what the company is committing to in future.

By doing this, we build the honest dialogue needed to ensure companies have the social license to continue setting ambitious long-term goals that they don’t know how to hit – that’s the only way to drive innovation, shift cultures and raise the bar on the art of the possible.

Cutting through complexity with compelling story-telling

Gone are the days when sustainability was the sole responsibility of what was usually then the CSR team. With executive bonuses often at stake, sustainability and climate progress has become everyone’s job. This has changed the role of the sustainability team from doer to enabler, and communications teams should be chief collaborators along the way. The task is to help people understand their role in enabling a company’s environmental goals and clearly communicating the case for change – no easy ask as we wade through a myopic web of acronyms that surround this world. In response, we need to shape stories that cut through that complexity to inspire action and empower employees, supply chains, investors and others to think, act, and behave in ways that embed environmental issues as a driver of decisions.

Getting sustainability narratives right

Companies investing in the transition often frame a narrative that ‘purpose drives performance’. In some areas this is true and it’s a message investors want to hear. But this is too simplistic, often a half-truth. At worst it could damage the very goal being pursued. Anchoring a narrative in the idea that there won’t be compromises, difficult decisions, and significant capital costs, risks distracting from the fact that those voluntarily stepping-up and internalising environmental costs, often put themselves at a short-term competitive disadvantage. At least until regulation catches up.

In PWC’s recent global survey of chief executives, almost half believe their business will cease to exist within a decade without reinvention, with the climate crisis being a major driver of physical, reputational and competition-related risks. This kind of framing, grounded in a sense of urgency, long-termism and transformation, should also anchor climate narratives, alongside the prospect of commercial, brand and efficiency benefits.

Business’s role as leaders, driving action from government

This focus on ‘purpose drives profit’, can also mask the need for action from regulators and policy makers. Whilst regulation is no silver bullet, it can help level the playing field, incentivise the right corporate behaviours and disincentivise companies from growing at the expense of our climate, nature and water systems. It has become clear that politicians won’t always provide the climate leadership companies are asking for and companies’ communications and public affairs teams can respond by more closely aligning their advocacy programmes to corporate transition goals. This idea is being explored in a forthcoming series of webinars being hosted by the UN Global Compact, which will be worth joining.

Corporate affairs as chief collaborators

On climate as well as other sustainability frontiers, we should be challenging ourselves and our organisations to look beyond communications to build collaborations. “No company can do this alone” has become a cliched phrase, up there with “we’re on a journey and don’t have all the answers”. But both are true.

That’s why the areas companies find most challenging are those where they depend on others for progress. Consumer behaviours, supply chain and scope 3 are the most obvious examples. The opportunity for radical action here has been transformed when late last year the CMA issued guidance to exempt certain corporate environmental collaborations from being subject to enforcement under company law. This opens the field for communicators to help companies to build new partnerships that drive innovation, scale new technologies, and address shared challenges.

Across all these areas, the capabilities, mindsets and world view of most corporate affairs professionals means we are well placed to contribute meaningfully to corporate climate transitions. We can help companies to find those stretch-collaborations across ever more complex ecosystems, taking stakeholders along with us on a challenging transition path. To re-use the cliché, at Headland we don’t have all the answers to what that looks like, but we did want to contribute to the debate. That’s why we produced the Collaborative Corporate to offer fresh ideas on how collaboration can be source of advantage and an anchor for building reputation in a world defined by grand challenges like climate change.

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