FIVE MINUTES WITH DAVID WILLANS
In the wake of COP27, Bladonmore sustainability director David Willans talks to Communicate magazine about how companies have responded, and the role communicators play in enacting change.
Do you believe COP27 was a success or a poor PR exercise?
If anything, COP27 showed us the critical importance of communicators. The summer’s events showed everyone on the planet how devastating climate change is and how urgent tackling it has become. Except, it seems, for some of the decision-makers and negotiators at COP. Some good things were agreed, like the loss and damages fund, but the lobbying and pushback on sticking to 1.5 degrees was strong.
We’re currently at 1.2 degrees; think about the floods, crop failures, extreme heat and hurricanes we’ve seen. 1.5 is 20% warmer, and we have less than 10 years to get there or the planet changes to such a point that even further warming is unstoppable. The need to convince and influence has never been more important and urgent.
Do you think the role of companies is now comparable to that of governments in tackling climate change?
For years, Unilever’s worked hard on making its products more sustainable and trying to get people to save energy when they use their products. In their recent climate transition report, they say this isn’t enough. Unilever is now lobbying governments to get countries to run on renewable instead of fossil fuels, so that it ultimately doesn’t matter what temperature people do their laundry at.
The role of businesses can be greater than governments if they choose to use their influence, if they do what they can in the current policy framework and if they work with others to lobby for policy change too.
What role do corporate communications professionals play in helping to address the climate crisis?
Corporate communications is a misunderstood function; we’re not just here to get our messages heard. We’re strategic: bringing the outside in, spotting opportunities and issues, getting the business to act and then communicating. In the short term, it’s about keeping the business honest and current.
Climate is changing everything, from investment to policy, to talent and recruitment, procurement and sales. Keeping up - let alone leading - means making real changes to a business. Those in corporate communications need to make sure decision-makers know this, are taking the right level of action, putting the money behind it and telling the right story. This is better than making commitments and kicking them into the long grass. In the long term, it’s about influencing government and industry.
Any business with a climate transition plan has a 30-year view. Delivering those plans depends on policy changes, but how many corporates are thinking strategically about how to influence government and the public opinion that shapes policy?
Do you think discussion around this topic is weighed down too much by negativity, when we could instead focus on communicating the opportunities that come with a regenerative future economy?
Years ago, I worked on research for one of prime minister David Cameron’s special advisors on exactly this. We found that positivity is more effective than negativity, although both are needed. However, what really matters is clarity of action: what you’re doing, what others are doing and what I can do.
As communicators, we instinctively know this because people act when they know what’s in it for them.
How can initiatives be communicated authentically?
Make sure they are actually authentic and truthful.
Sustainability is complicated and complex, so having a good sustainability team is critical to make sure the technical is translated into great communications without being misleading.
Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which ran communications for COP27 this year, came under fire for its work for fossil fuel clients. Do agencies need to be more conscious of the clients they take on?
Of course - this isn’t a new question though. People have always questioned the morality of business.
Unfortunately, these often aren’t clear-cut decisions and there are lots of grey areas, with little information in the public environment. We deal with it via an internal committee that vets potential work with new clients and considers a range of criteria, from obvious factors like location, to politics and religion, through to gut-feeling - asking 'does this feel right for us?'
In your recent piece for Communicate magazine, you say: “[...] reputation shouldn’t be top of the agenda. It’s not about what you can get, it’s about what you can bring to earn respect.” How do companies earn respect?
The same way people do.
Make good decisions, be clear and honest about the reasons, acknowledge the challenges, show your personality and get the right things done when you said you would.