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6 takeaways from the GreenBiz 23 Comms Summit

What happens when 200 sustainability communications professionals come together to refine their collective message-making?

Room full of tables workshopping communications scenarios

Photo by Louis Bryant III/Burgundy Visuals

Sustainability communicators don’t have it easy. Public trust has dipped and anti-ESG sentiment is climbing, yet the need to share and advance solutions to the climate crisis has never been more pressing. What does it take to close this gap and tell stories that make an impact?

In February, the GreenBiz 23 Comms Summit offered a diverse mix of sustainability and communications professionals a rare opportunity to network, engage in hands-on messaging challenges and share insights for telling effective stories for a range of media and audiences.

The two-day event in Scottsdale, Arizona, brought together nearly 200 leaders in corporate sustainability and communications alongside external communications consultancies, legal counsel and experts from nonprofit groups and academia. They sought to learn best practices, network with peers, gain insights on consumer trends, refine language, improve internal alignment and gain legal clarity.

The event followed the Chatham House rule, which encouraged open communication and allowed participants to share insights but not identify who said them. From the panel discussions and hands-on, "360-degree" role-playing exercises aimed at solving real-world communications challenges, six themes emerged.

1. Steer clear of greenwashing

The problem: Comms Summit participants widely agreed that messages that spark charges of greenwashing are usually unintentional rather than purposefully deceitful. However, regulatory challenges related to environmental claims have increased in recent years by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), state attorneys general, private litigators and the Better Business Bureau, along with their counterparts outside the United States.

The solution: Sustainability communicators must vet and validate their messages with hard data, being transparent and reporting progress against targeted benchmarks. They should also imagine how a "reasonable consumer" would interpret their message, which is the FTC’s basis for making a greenwashing charge. Empathizing with members of the intended audience and other stakeholders includes tailoring messages and pressure testing them for each group.

2. Greenhushing is the bigger problem

The problem: The fear of being called out for greenwashing has led to a greater threat: greenhushing. This practice of self-censorship is leading some companies to bury worthy climate and ESG stories. In a poll, when asked to name their biggest barrier to sustainability communications, 22 percent of those attending the Comms Summit said their top concern was "missed opportunities to tell our sustainability story." Only 10 percent named greenwashing as their biggest concern.

The solution: In sustainability messaging, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Corporations may shy away from announcing a target of anything less than 100 percent, even though change is often slow and incremental. Yet embracing vulnerability can enhance public trust and lead to more interesting stories along the way. Don’t be afraid to tell the story of the less-than-perfect target, sharing the timelines, twists and turns of short-term actions and baby steps. Tell an honest and authentic tale of what goes into a best effort and acknowledge that more needs to happen, bringing stakeholders along for the journey.

3. Navigate the ‘Bermuda triangle of sustainability messaging’

The problem: From the big picture to granular details, many things can get lost in a "Bermuda Triangle" when sustainability executives, communicators and legal experts across an organization come together to finalize a message. Sustainability leaders strive to convey meaningful goals and progress grounded in science, but often overuse jargon, thereby clouding the message they are hoping to convey. Public relations professionals seek to transform technical language into compelling prose, but often distort or oversimplify the meaning, sometimes with the kind of overarching claims that can get the attention of critics and regulators. Legal experts seek to mitigate those risks but may quash the creative efforts of the communications teams. 

The solution: Experts from all three fields elaborated on these challenges, from which emerged actions to address them. To start, all stakeholders involved in a communications effort should come together at the project’s inception, not near the finale, to prevent blindsiding one another or derailing plans at the last minute. They should continue to meet periodically, with questions and resources prepared ahead of time. That can include playbooks, guides and protocols to help teammates understand the big picture. In addition, each message must be airtight and vetted in terms of accuracy.

4. Coping with conflicts and the anti-ESG backlash

The problem: "The rise of anti-ESG rhetoric" was the top concern among 12 percent of Comms Summit attendees. Political and culture wars have placed in the crosshairs nearly any effort by businesses to communicate climate and social challenges and solutions. Low public trust in corporate climate efforts is another headwind. Sixty percent of people find it "too difficult to find trustworthy information about climate change," and 64 percent rated companies "mediocre or worse" in keeping climate commitments, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer

The solution: Know your adversaries before considering any response to them. "Haters" who wish that your company’s ESG efforts didn’t exist can rarely be bargained with, so it’s often best to ignore them. On the other hand, critics, such as watchdog groups or journalists, may offer valuable insights ahead of their time, even if they demand that your organization make unrealistic changes right now. Another type of critic, "critical friends," want you to be the best you can be, even if they call out your efforts for falling short or accuse you of greenwashing. They are often worth engaging early on in designing a communications campaign or strategy.

5. Telling better stories

The problem: Sustainability communicators have relied on the language of science for decades, thinking wishfully, "If only people learn the facts, they will take action on the climate crisis." However, cold, hard data generally do a poor job of winning over hearts and minds. Scientific language is also rife with confusing contradictions; for example, "negative" emissions are a good thing but "positive" feedback loops usually are not.

The solution: Sound science ensures the integrity of a message, but human beings find meaning in stories, not acronyms and technical jargon. Climate communicators can consider telling stories about cherished people and places — not just for "future generations" but for those facing climate-related challenges right now. Stories and archetypes that have resonated for millennia include heroes’ journeys and underdogs winning improbable battles. Don’t tell stories with dead ends, but leave room for hope by sharing a challenge alongside a choice to make and the opportunity for making it. Finally, rather than centering communications around your organization alone, embrace the bigger picture and invite your competitors and members of other industries to join the journey.

6. Engaging youth

The problem: Engaging young people is critical both to business and to addressing the climate crisis, but less than half of young adults feel businesses are having a positive impact, according to the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey. They don’t trust vague marketing lingo such as "green," and messages about recycling resonate less well with them than with Baby Boomers, according to the 2023 Buzz on Buzzwords survey by the Shelton Group. Youth are relentlessly online and many trust social media influencers and creators over traditional media. Meanwhile, they eye an uncertain future where natural systems are at risk and living conditions are more dangerous. What can bridge the sustainability communications gap between older adults and emerging generations?

The solution: Digital natives lean heavily on interactive media that involves a call and response between users and creators. The old practices, such as sending big-budget messaging campaigns for one-way consumption, no longer apply. Leading digital influencers churn out bites of content multiple times each day, guided by the wishes among millions of followers. Businesses cultivate messaging that embraces interactivity and shorter attention spans.In addition, companies seeking to reach young people should avoid using them as tokens, such as trotting them out for photo ops. Instead, they should work up Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation toward truly and meaningfully engaging with youth and, even better, partnering with them to collaborate on messages, products and services.

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