ITL #331 Change leadership: the new thought leadership for climate challenge

1 month, 2 weeks ago


Communicators have a vital role to play in building the partnerships needed to solve climate change issues. By Daniel Silberhorn.

We are finally seeing some substantial sustainable change. This is good news for the planet, and good news for companies willing to take the lead in being part of a more sustainable future. What we are witnessing is the rise of change leadership – becoming the new thought leadership.

What a summer this has been so far: As France experienced its highest temperatures in recorded history late June, the French government joined 560 authorities around the world, among them the UK and Ireland, and cities such as Sydney and most recently New York, making the Big Apple the first city in the US, in declaring a climate emergency.

During the same week, the UK announced it wants to become net zero carbon by 2050 – the first major economy in the world to commit to this ambitious goal. There is a similar draft law by the German Environmental Minister circulating in Berlin, all while the country is hotly debating the introduction of a possible carbon tax. And at the G20 summit, world leaders agreed on a climate deal.

Unfortunately, without the US.

This action on the political level was preceded by months and months of discussion and disturbing photographs showing plastic waste in the seas, starving polar bears on tiny patches of ice and a heatwave sweeping across Europe.

A sad, iconic image

Recently, the photo of sled dogs apparently walking on water shot by a scientist in Greenland has become the new sad, iconic image of climate change. More and more people understand: This is for real. And this realization changes their attitude.

For instance, in Germany up to 80% of people said in a survey they are ready for sacrifices to help protect the climate, including flying less. Indeed, in Sweden, home of Greta Thunberg, the young girl who started the Fridays for Future movement, there is a new trend: Flygskam. This describes the shame people feel about flying as they know it is bad for the climate.

In Germany, the recent EU elections were dubbed ‘climate elections’ as the issue of climate change helped the Green party win unprecedentedly high numbers of votes, especially among younger people. Along with the rise of what is called Zero Waste Lifestyle, packaging-free stores pop up in Germany and other countries.

More and more people are testing toothpaste in pill form, take their own containers to buy cheese, or even produce their own deodorant at home. Thousands of children hit the streets in more than 1,500 cities in 120 countries, to demonstrate they are not happy with climate politics.

Impact on companies

And this changing attitude is being felt by companies around the world. Just a few examples: The EU ban on single-use plastics, the ban on diesel engines across a growing number of cities in Germany (the country that invented the diesel!), the recent announcement of the Norwegian Pension Fund (the largest state fund in the world) to withdraw from fossil fuels.

In some countries, there is even a growing sentiment that companies should be made to pay for slowing progress in areas such as the move towards alternative fuels. Indeed, sustainability has become a key issue especially for Generation Z. Behind closed doors, some multinationals admit they can’t fill many positions with potential candidates who say they are not interested as the company is perceived as irresponsible.

Frequently, companies have a hard time keeping up with such strengthening expectations. For example, the debate on plastics shows that in some areas, the discussion in the industry is lagging years behind societal expectations.

While industry focus is often on improving aspects such as recycling, an increasing number of stakeholders prefer less plastic and more environmentally friendly alternatives from the start. They have seen where plastic ends up: on beaches, in countries like Malaysia, in the fish we eat, in the soil we grow food in.

Mars traveler

Recently, a photo of a Mars bar wrapper, found on a British beach, made its rounds on the social web, showing a best-before date in 1986 on a foil that looked as good as new. Why think about recycling, if you can avoid plastic altogether, this is the logic of a growing number of people. This gap in expectations is set to cause quite some headaches in board rooms and will require a lot of explanation and dialogue in future.

Indeed, the latest snapshot of our own FleishmanHillard Authentic Insights report shows that the environment has never been more important and that companies are expected to take a stand. This is good news for communicators, as it opens a window of reputation opportunity, with the current debate showing that companies now have the chance to position themselves in a positive way more than ever – even as real change agents, actively contributing towards a more sustainable future. Even if you do not have a big multinational brand.

In fact, this is the chance for many hidden champions to take center stage in the hearts and minds of their audiences. Since our society increasingly demands a real change towards more sustainability, a sustainable transformation, the climate debate’s guiding principle is: Action is like talking, only way better. In the face of our current challenges to hit the 2°C goal, change leadership is becoming the new thought leadership.

Companies that understand

Many companies have already understood this development. Recently, for example, IKEA announced it will only use recycled polyester in textile products by 2020.

In Germany, grocery chains virtually competed in announcing how they would reduce plastic waste in the past year. This May, German energy giant RWE (which in 2018 attracted massive criticism for cutting down a forest to extract coal) announced it will switch to producing only green energy.

In early June, United Airlines launched what the US carrier called “the most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of aviation”, using biofuels, beeswax food wrappers and recyclable coffee cups on board. However, there are more opportunities. Especially through combining forces, by forming strategic partnerships, by contributing to the political debate, and by aligning with the relevant SDGs.

Here, we as communicators have a valuable and responsible role to play. We are the link between an organization and its publics. We are the ones who get the questions from journalists, citizens, or from investors.

We are in the best position to understand the stakeholders and their views. We can advise internal decision-makers on the expectations and the effects of their decisions relating to sustainability. We can help foster a common understanding of what should be done within the organization; mapping, for instance, our company’s or our client’s efforts against the UN Sustainable Development goals that have become the guiding principles for business and politics.

We can help build the partnerships that are needed to solve the various issues. Globally. And we can shape communication in a way that is understood by those a company addresses.

While CSR was about exceeding the letters of the law and behaving responsibly in what a company does, the situation now requires every corporate citizen to take matters really into their hands…to win. This takes courage, and a willingness to engage, to listen, to talk, to be prepared for real dialogue. And to change.

As society demands more action to protect our world, such action becomes the new currency of trust and reputation. Change leadership becomes the new thought leadership. And we, as communicators, have a job to do. Let’s go. The heat, unfortunately, is on.


The author

Daniel Silberhorn has almost 15 years of experience in advising national and international organizations in managing their reputation and relationships. A member of FleishmanHillard Germany’s corporate communication team and the senior consultant responsible for sustainability and sustainable change, he is also a lecturer for Global Communications at Erfurt University, Germany, and a guest lecturer at the Escola Superior de Comunicacao Social in Lisbon.



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The Author

Daniel Silberhorn

Daniel Silberhorn has almost 15 years of experience in advising national and international organizations in managing their reputation and relationships. A member of FleishmanHillard Germany’s corporate communication team and the senior consultant responsible for sustainability and sustainable change, he is also a lecturer for Global Communications at Erfurt University, Germany, and a guest lecturer at the Escola Superior de Comunicacao Social in Lisbon.

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