'Are you on Mother Earth's pitch list?' PR pros on challenges and duties of COP26

With the landmark UN climate change conference now in progress, what are the hopes and expectations of comms and public affairs professionals in attendance – and what are the wider lessons for the industry?

Clockwise from top left: Will Mapplebeck, Surinder Kaur Sian, Amanda Powell-Smith, Sam Bowen, Anna Guyer and Frankie Oliver

Alongside more than 100 world leaders, numerous heads of business and NGOs, and stars such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough – not to mention the world's media – comms and public affairs folk have descended on Glasgow for COP26.

With about 30,000 delegates attending over the 13-day event, it promises to be an extraordinary occasion.

The aim is to finalise the Paris Rulebook, an agreed set of rules intended to limit the global temperature rise to ideally no more than 1.5°C. Countries are asked to propose ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century. Specifically, states will need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curtail deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles, and encourage investment in renewables. Clearly, businesses and others have a huge role to play.

The stakes could not be higher: the bombshell Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from August issued a "Code Red for Humanity". It said the planet is warming at perilous levels and the desecration of our planet is “unequivocally” caused by human activities.

Expect high-profile protests. About 150,000 activists from groups including Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace are expected to march on the streets of Glasgow urging action. Thunberg will lead the Fridays for Future youth march at 11am on 5 November, when youth and public empowerment will be the theme of the day.

COP26 itself is divided into 'zones': the limited-access Blue Zone, where world leaders and delegates take part in negotiations; the outer Green Zone, which is accessible to the public, and where ticketed events take place; and Glasgow City Council's Host City Zone, which is open to all and will also touch on key themes.

The programme begins with a two-day World Leaders summit. After that, each day will focus on a different theme. These include finance; nature; gender, science and innovation; and transportation. 'Presidency Programme' panels will take place based on the day's theme.

PRWeek spoke to six comms and public affairs professionals about their plans for COP, the challenges of communicating during the historic event, and the wider implications for our industry.

'The duty of everyone in comms to listen and learn'

Frankie Oliver, founder, New Society

The industry stalwart urged everyone in comms to pay attention to COP26 – and to learn lessons.

"COP26 is arguably the most important meeting ever hosted on earth," she says. "While many of us are not in control of the final outcome of negotiations, everyone’s part is essential, from the public marching on the streets to the speakers raising key issues in the conference to the final actions of negotiators and world leaders.

"Even if you are not attending, it is everyone’s duty in the communications industry to take part by listening to everything that is happening and learning, from account exec to CEO.

"As Sir David Attenborough has said, the climate crisis is a communications challenge. Greta Thunberg has said it’s a communications crisis. So we, as an industry, shoulder the most extraordinary moral responsibility to ensure we solve this challenge and protect the future lives of all our children."

Oliver, who launched her climate and social change consultancy earlier this year, will speak on a Presidency Programme panel on public and youth empowerment in the Blue Zone from 2.30-4pm on Friday 5 November. She is to discuss "the critical role public engagement plays in solving the crisis – from driving systemic change to promoting individual action".

She highlights research from Climate Outreach, which is hosting the panel, that shows just 13 per cent of people understand what policies are needed to address the climate crisis, and only 10 per cent know what they must do to address it in their own lives.

"There is much work to do," Oliver says. "And COP26 is really only the end of the beginning. It’s what happens after COP26 that is going to ensure we actually deliver on the Paris Rulebook. It has been said that the human mind isn’t built for the level of transformation we need to address the climate crisis. But we don’t have any choice but to make that huge leap."

She adds: "It’s time for the communications industry to end greenwashing, plastic purpose and the wealth of low-impact net zero campaigns that give the world nothing but green-slush. We have been given the biggest ever pitch for our biggest client – Mother Earth. So my question to you is: are you on the pitch list?"

'Whatever we put out, it has to be robust'

Surinder Kaur Sian, senior corporate communications manager, National Grid

Striking pictures of the famous 10 Downing Street door illuminated with green lighting hit the media last week.

It was an activation by the National Grid to promote a new app telling consumers the cleanest times to plug in. The activity was one of several from the electricity and gas utility company to coincide with COP26.

"We think COP26 provides a unique opportunity to showcase the progress the UK has already made on decarbonisation," says Kaur Sian. "Through our comms and campaigns over the last 10 months, we wanted to showcase the actions we are taking, the exciting projects that are underway and talk about how we can work together within the UK and globally to accelerate progress."

In April the National Grid launched a campaign to promote a low-energy lightbulb that glows green when the electricity supply is the cleanest, after research identified an ‘energy awareness gap’.

As one of 11 'Principle Partners', the FTSE 100-listed utitlities company will have a significant presence at COP26, in both the Blue and Green zones. Announcements will be made throughout. This includes Voice of All, a film featuring members of the public expressing their hopes and fears for the future, which will be projected at various points to alert people in power. "The idea is that we want COP not just to be about world leaders and business, although that's very important, but that people all over the country feel their voices are heard." Another video, in which children share their own climate solutions, will also launch.

National Grid chief executive John Pettigrew will aim to speak to world leaders about accelerating progress, but the company also hopes activities will resonate closer to home. "For us, it's not just looking externally, it's looking internally as well," says Kaur Sian. "We're a company with 20,000 employees, both in the UK and US. We want our employees who are both on the front line, as it were, and those supporting in other roles to see that their work is actually making a difference. We want them to engage, to be proud of things they are involved in."

She understands the dangers of greenwashing accusations amid "increased scrutiny of what companies are doing and what they're saying". The National Grid has set emissions targets via the Science Based Targets initiative, which requires annual reporting. "We're very conscious that whatever we put out, it has to be robust," Kaur Sian says.

'Only communicate if it's positive, ambitious and groundbreaking'

Anna Guyer, founder, Greenhouse PR

Guyer and her agency have a big job at COP26. Greenhouse PR is working with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the COP26 organisers, focusing on the innovation and nature days.

A key objective is to launch "a really ambitious plan for innovation at scale", identifying how governments and industries can collaborate to innovate and help the environment.

Guyer advises clients to "only look to communicate if you've got something positive, ambitious and groundbreaking to say" – and avoid making announcements during COP26 "for the sake of it". "Genuine leadership is what the public and media wants," she stresses.

"We're really encouraging people that, if they want to be part of something bigger, they have to think less about themselves and being so driven about getting their own story out there."

Among other similar work, Greenhouse PR is running the 'nature newsroom' for Nature 4 Climate, a coalition of nature-based NGOs, and working with the Water Pavilion, a collaboration of governments, firms and others with an interest in water that aims to advise decision-makers.

"This year seems to be all about collaboration – taking the emphasis away from governments alone to solve the crisis, and engaging policymakers, businesses and investors in the race to zero."

The agency has been working with Teach the Future, which wants climate change added to the curriculum. The issue was debated in Parliament last week, in a motion tabled by Nadia Whittome MP (pictured below right, with 17-year-old Scarlett Westbrook of Teach the Future).

Guyer makes a plea: "We need brilliant communicators to focus their skills and expertise to drive and accelerate climate action. Never has there been a more challenging and exciting time to be in comms.

"There are so many great solutions out there that need to be scaled quickly – and PR can help pioneers, NGOs, even governments, to scale what is positive to help us stay within temperature limits where life could be liveable. As PR people, let’s be on the right side of history. Let’s focus on what we can do for our children, our children’s children, and the future of biodiversity and the planet – before it is too late."

'Like party conferences on steroids'

Will Mapplebeck, strategic comms and public affairs manager, Core Cities UK

Mapplebeck's employer promotes the interests of 11 UK cities (excluding London) and its primary focus at COP26 will be securing private finance for decarbonisation projects.

Core Cities UK will hold events on Wednesday 3 November (finance day) and Thursday 11 November (cities, regions and built environment day). Events will take place in both the Blue and Green Zones, with panel discussions and a dinner planned.

Mapplebeck will be armed with a report from the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission, released last month, that identifies green investment opportunities worth £500bn across the 11 cities and the capital. He stresses the importance of cities being involved in delivering "at a local level".

What are Mapplebeck's expectations of COP26? "I suspect it'll be like a conference, but like no other in terms of its intensity, in terms of the number of delegates from different countries who will be attending, and in terms of the difficulties of having loads of competing voices in one place.

"I went to [political] party conferences this year, which was great, but this is going to be like party conferences on steroids. It's going to be absolutely huge."

Mapplebeck is concerned about achieving cut-through. "I think everyone will be more or less saying the same thing: there's a crisis, we need to act, governments need to act," he says. "Our line would be: governments need to act, but cities deliver. It's going to be an extremely tough place to get messages across. I think we've got the catalyst to be able to do it, which is great, but it's going to be pretty full-on."

'Agencies must walk the talk'

Amanda Powell-Smith, chief executive, Forster

Powell-Smith is the odd one out in this article – she and her agency will not be at COP26 in person. The chief executive points out that many of the events will be hybrid, and some clients have chosen not to attend or are doing so in smaller numbers.

"We made the decision that we'd be better off focusing our efforts from here," says Powell-Smith, whose agency represents businesses such as BMW, Patagonia and Danone and not-for-profits including The Energy Savings Trust and Solar Energy UK.

"We're running a COP26 press office [for clients] from London. That work already started: we're supplying broadcasters with film and interviews for supporting coverage."

Like others, Powell-Smith stresses how much of the important work took place pre-conference. "There will be opportunities during the event, but probably only if clients are able to discuss policy in detail; it won't suit every client. It is a question of cherry-picking where you can add best value into the debate and the discussion. It's short-sighted to think that just has to be during the next two weeks.

"A lot of the most exciting work has to happen post-COP, about how we translate whatever decisions have been made into reality. We know we're going to see a lot of UK media attention, but it's going to be on the policy pieces. What we need to do is keep media attention high on an ongoing basis and then show how that policy turns into action from there."

Regardless of the final climate deal, Powell-Smith believes clients should operate in line with the target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C before 2030.

"We need everybody to be taking action and getting going, almost regardless of what the political side is. We're lucky because we work with progressive organisations that are already leaning into the problem. It's about how can we accelerate it."

Powell-Smith expects "a lot more focus on evidence" of whether businesses "have changed or not". She believes that unless firms reach Scope 3 of the emission reduction commitments, which include all indirect emissions in a company's value chain, "they won't necessarily be taken seriously any more".

Powell-Smith warns. "I really believe that agencies can't advise businesses on what to do if they're not doing it themselves. I think that whole 'walk the talk' is going to become way more important."

'COP will be a marker for businesses'

Sam Bowen, director of strategy and insight, Red Consultancy

"We’ll be in Glasgow with quite a few of our major clients," says Bowen. "There’s a mix of activity, from campaign activation to events such as discussions on technology’s role in sustainability. We’re there over a few days in the first week and really looking forward to such an important moment in time."

Bowen has experience in this area. His work in 2009 restoring the reputation of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit after a data theft was the subject of recent BBC docu-drama ‘The Trick’.

Beyond client work, Bowen says his plan for COP26 is to "soak up all the knowledge we can and take advantage of being where the negotiations are taking place". "Post-COP26, there’ll be big pressure on more businesses to present and fulfill their strategies for net zero/net positive, and how they respond will be vital. We’ve recently launched Green@Red to help clients navigate broad stakeholder comms, so it’s important we’re there.

"Increasingly, we’ve been working with many clients to communicate their sustainable position from both organisational and brand/product perspectives. In the aftermath, COP26 will be a marker for businesses to consolidate and act on the expectations of their many stakeholders with urgency."

Bowen adds: "I’ll be making the most of the opportunities to gather insight from the summit and looking at ways to use this to truly impact the work we’re doing with clients. There’s a lot to be done and while this can feel daunting, being where action is happening is important and personally fulfilling."

Thumbnail picture: Extinction Rebellion activists protesting on 31 October in Edinburgh ahead of the start of COP (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

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