COP26 is the easy bit for corporate and public affairs teams

As preparations get underway for the biggest diplomatic meeting on UK soil since World War II, corporate affairs and comms teams need to adapt their strategy to demonstrate what business is actually doing to tackle climate change.

The hard work for corporate comms and public affairs professionals begins after COP26, warns Hamish Docherty
The hard work for corporate comms and public affairs professionals begins after COP26, warns Hamish Docherty

COP26, in Glasgow this November, is 2021’s hot topic for those working in the worlds of politics and business.

But a survey by the Department for Business earlier this year found that only 62 per cent of the public was aware of the concept of ‘net zero’ – a drop from December 2020.

Policymakers and business leaders clearly need to do more to explain why they’re all converging on Scotland’s second city in November – and what they’re really doing to tackle the burning issue of climate change.

The objective of COP26 is to build on the commitments made in the Paris Agreement.

And while businesses are making significant sustainability pledges ahead of COP26, this won’t be enough to achieve real cut-through or prepare business leaders for a post-COP26 world.

Help people understand ‘net zero’

Businesses have been dusting off their sustainability credentials and making increasingly ambitious pledges on carbon reduction. The collective pressure not to be left behind has resulted in ‘commitment fatigue’.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to distinguish the true sustainability leaders and understand what they’re actually doing to tackle climate change.

As COP26 approaches, businesses need to go beyond making bold, but static, pledges and commitments – many of which are too intangible or unrelatable.

Companies should instead take audiences on the journey to net zero through each small milestone, by telling compelling stories and showcasing relatable examples. Only by bringing this journey to life in a tangible way will communications teams successfully cut through the noise and shift perceptions ahead of, during and after the summit.

Plan for regulation post-COP26

COP26 will be the beginning of a period of monumental change. Over the past few years governments have encouraged, rather than forced, businesses and society to take steps to reduce emissions. If COP26 results in a series of successful binding agreements, governments will turn to ‘stick’ over ‘carrot’ strategies by introducing new legislation and reporting standards to expedite necessary changes.

Corporate affairs teams should be prepared for an inevitable raft of legislative and regulatory changes.

How business leaders manage and respond to these changes will determine how companies are perceived by internal and external audiences – from investors to regulators and employees to customers.

Engender trust

Research this summer found that half of UK adults feel powerless and unable to make a real difference in addressing climate change.

By reducing their own carbon footprint, businesses have the potential to change this perception.

Companies, especially those in b2c sectors, should empower consumers: give them reasons to feel proud to use specific products and services, and make them feel they are playing their part. The same goes for employees. Consumers and employees have the potential to be the most powerful and impactful brand ambassadors.

Meanwhile, to lessen the need for regulatory ‘stick’ strategies, corporate affairs teams will need to build greater trust with policymakers and regulators, providing reassurances on their own progress towards agreed goals. This will ensure they stay one step ahead of regulation.

Don’t just talk, do

It’s easy to forget that COP26 is first and foremost a meeting of diplomats and negotiators, not a platform for ESG commitments. Some will simply see the event as a flag-waving opportunity to pay lip service to sustainability and climate change.

Smart communicators will harness the potential of the summit to demonstrate how and why they are an important part of the solution. Either way, the real work for business and corporate affairs teams begins when the flags are taken down in Glasgow after the event.

Hamish Docherty is an account director at Weber Shandwick

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