How companies can communicate climate innovations to a skeptical public

Sustainability and climate justice stand at the forefront of a conversation led by General Motors, the Solar Energy Industries Association and Genesys.

L-R: Solar Energy Industries Association’s Jen Bristol, Genesys’ Bridgette McAdoo, BrightDrop’s Daniel Roberts, PRWeek’s Ewan Larkin

CHICAGO: Climate change can feel like an insurmountable crisis, one that no sustainability initiative can make a dent in. But execs from General Motors, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Genesys say that grounded and focused storytelling can move the needle.

Speaking at PRWeek’s PRDecoded conference in Chicago on Tuesday, SEIA’s senior director of communications Jen Bristol pointed to CNN coverage of Babcock Ranch, a solar-panel-powered community that never lost electricity in the face of Hurricane Ian ravaging neighboring towns.

“Folks like myself who have been pounding the pavement every single day, fighting for a clean energy future, it’s so validating and exciting to see mainstream media pick up these stories and help us tell them,” she said.

Another panelist, Genesys' global chief sustainability officer Bridgette McAdoo, said these kinds of stories teach people that there are actionable changes they can make in their lives that will make a difference in the fight against climate change. 

She added that comms professionals need to be aware of the ways climate change interacts with everyday life to show skeptical or indifferent communities that the crisis affects them just as it does everyone else.

“People think that climate change has nothing to do with them, but then you have a pandemic that’s exacerbated by climate change and you have hurricane season,” McAdoo said.

Sustainability communicators need to be extra focused on communities where misinformation has warped perceptions of climate change, Bristol said.

“You have to meet people where they’re at,” she said. “There are some folks that are getting misinformation and it’s really important that when we are going into communities and we’re holding our solar projects, you need to engage your community early and often.”

Panelists also discussed how good communications and data measurement can ward off accusations of greenwashing. Bristol said that when different companies pick the same KPIs that are easy to measure, it simplifies comparing data and showing how effective your company is.

Daniel Roberts, head of communications at BrightDrop, a startup from General Motors that focuses on decarbonization, said that PR teams can help by translating confusing, jargon-laden internal communications into easily digestible information for the general public.

“We use a lot of internal jargon, and it doesn’t translate to the average person as a consumer,” he said, adding that there is a need “to understand what the technicalities are and then using the comms team to be that translator to the rest of the population that’s not seen this work.”

He also said that sustainability initiatives should be inclusive and factor in financial constraints within communities that make it challenging to invest in electric vehicles.

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