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We recently hosted an event in our London office on communicating about the climate transition, part of our ‘Cognito in Conversation’ breakfast series.

We welcomed a fantastic panel of experts whose day-to-day jobs directly or indirectly touch on communicating about sustainability: Rob Doepel, UK & Ireland Managing Partner for Sustainability, EY;  Joe Cockerline, Senior Communications Specialist, UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI); Rachael Smith, Senior Manager and Vice President, EMEA Marketing, Dimensional Fund Advisors; and Lukasz Biernacki, Communications & Marketing Lead, Climate Action Data Trust.

Tied to the theme of ‘Telling net-zero stories in the age of climate skepticism’, the panelists delved into challenges surrounding how companies can communicate about climate transition. This included engaging an audience on a topic as varied and personal as climate change, how to consider comms activity around some of the backlash we are seeing in areas such as ESG and carbon markets, and ways to integrate sustainability into company cultures.

Here are some of the key points we think encapsulate the conversation and are most applicable to  professionals focused on sustainability and communications.

Importance of leadership and taking a stand

A main talking point for panelists was the importance of “selfless leaders” in communicating about client transition. When it comes to sustainability, having candid and honest conversations is fundamental to altering the course of a business or a sector. Whilst the benefits of a leader’s actions are not always reflected in the short term, standing for a worthwhile cause is ultimately the right thing to do. 

Embedding strong leaders in sustainability storytelling is a must if companies are going to take a leading and credible position.

The role of data

Throughout the event there was an emphasis on the role that data plays in communications and marketing, particularly when it comes to sustainability. Data visualization is becoming a fundamental tool for communications and marketing professionals in how they tell authentic and clear stories about climate transition.  

Within this framing, it is vital to showcase all milestones – both successes and challenges in reaching them. Honesty and transparency are key to conversations about sustainability. One way to achieve this is by leveraging data visualization to help audiences interpret and analyze information.

How can you deal with the backlash?

Whilst sustainability is surrounded with politically charged debate, it is important to recognize the power that simplicity yields.

The panel discussed how to deal with this, noting that getting back to basics and talking about topics in fact-based terms can work best. Think about the questions that your critics are posing, and how you can plainly cut through the noise and focus on the bigger picture.

Embedding sustainability into a company culture

The need to implement communications strategies to educate employees about sustainability was a resounding theme.  

Embedding sustainability into a company culture is crucial. Not only does it cultivate best practices, but it also helps them to create a universal understanding of their organization’s sustainability goals.

The learning here is that internal communications around sustainability is often as important as external communications.

There is something to be said for approaching this topic with an open mind. Large and well-established organizations could learn a lot from how startups address sustainability – which often are better placed to credibly seed sustainability in the foundations of the business.

Humanizing the story  

Behind each data set there is a human story. In communications it can be easy to get bogged down with statistics and data. However, the best way to harness this content effectively is to focus on the human aspects of what the data is showing you. This will transform a data-led story and create a far more interesting piece.

The bigger picture is often disregarded, for instance when it comes to a climate mitigation project that sells carbon credits. A focus on sustainable development and human-led content when exploring these projects really brings a story to life and builds a relatable narrative that will engage your audience.

The challenges of communicating to different audiences

Take into consideration your demographic before you disclose information about sustainability. Not all audiences will want access to the same research and information - a large part of this will come down to their personal values.

Be open to initiating conversations with critical audiences, to discuss their interest in sustainability and establish what type of information would be most useful. From here you can work out relevant thought leadership and narratives that ultimately, your audiences are most interested in.   

Contact the Cognito Sustainability Practice and work with us to help you communicate about sustainability more effectively.


Charlie Morrow is Global Head of Sustainability Communications in our London office