Companies should spare the media budget – climate change is an internal comms job

Do you have agency to act on climate change? I don’t mean do you have an agency to help you act on climate change – that would be a sales pitch too far. I mean: do you have ‘agency’ to act on climate change?

Giving employees agency on climate change is a game-changer, argues Frankie Oliver
Giving employees agency on climate change is a game-changer, argues Frankie Oliver

Agency is defined as the capacity of an individual to act independently and intentionally influence their own free choices.

Your personal agency to act is rooted in the core belief that you have the power to affect change, and it needs to rise to the top of the net zero leadership agenda – quickly.

ESG frameworks don’t fully address a company’s true potential when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. They mostly mitigate risk.

Innovation, transformation and the behaviour change we need to solve the climate crisis is created by people; connected and empowered people who are leaders, employees and customers – with agency to act individually and collectively.

The real net zero asset

People are, in fact, a chief executive's biggest net zero asset.

There can be a sense that the climate problem is really down to the sustainability team to sort out, and that they will reappear like a rabbit out of a hat when it’s all done.

But solving the climate crisis needs a fully joined-up, agency-building people strategy across all departments.

This is especially true for second-level management, who are the ones doing the work but are often challenged with conflicting business priorities that don’t always line up the climate ‘walk’ with the ‘talk’.

But give them and your employees the agency to act on climate change and you will see your company shift a gear so profound that it will be felt viscerally, driving innovation and leadership you might not even have thought possible.

Building ‘agency’ is an internal comms job

Noisy media headlines, 30-second adverts and net zero branding of the cafeteria do not build agency. They might nudge people in the right direction, but they don’t create the journey most people need to go on to believe they can act on climate change. This is primarily an inside job.

So what does build agency? Face-to-face, expertly facilitated communication and dialogue that overcomes barriers to action such as values, politics and unconscious bias are some of them.

We saw an example of this in action with the Citizens Assembly, in its new documentary screened last week.

This was a group of ordinary folk who – after eight weekends of carefully facilitated presentations – overcame the polarity, apathy, fear and ignorance that can beset a conversation, let alone action, on climate change.

Together they made more than 50 ambitious policy recommendations on climate change. They weren’t divided. They were united.

Communications charity Climate Outreach has called for public education about the climate to be a legal right for everyone, as well as a ‘People’s COP’.

‘The great unasked’

Climate activist Jane Fonda calls us all ‘the great unasked’, which begs the question of chief executives and leadership teams on their race to net zero: are your people the ‘great unasked’? Do you know how they feel about the climate crisis? Do they understand your net zero strategy, believe in it, care and know how to act on it? Do they feel part of the solution and empowered to even ask to be asked?

My hunch is many haven’t.

Companies that have signed up to the Race to Zero campaign have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of employees. Look at Tesco, for example. Imagine the impact on our society if its 420,000 employees had the agency to act on climate change at work, in their families, with their friends and in their communities. Wouldn’t that be extraordinary?

Now read: 'The industry needs to level up': most PRs nervous about clients jumping on climate crisis bandwagon

The people involved proudly remember the day they were asked to take part in the Citizen’s Assembly and continued to share stories of acting on climate change long after the presentations were over.

Your leadership team, your management teams and your employees will – if taken on the right agency-building journey – remember the day they were asked to act on climate change and they will continue to act long after those days are over.

Spare the media budget, for now

So before any creative brief gets written promoting net zero commitments to the outside world, look inside and ask: does everyone in this organisation have agency to act on climate change?

If they don’t, save the media budget for now and get talking.

Frankie Oliver is the founder of New Society

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