With COP26 in Glasgow just two weeks away, companies and organisations are finalising plans for COP26 communications and public affairs activity.
It is important that they prepare for the shift that will occur in the days before and during the summit, as journalists, political stakeholders and other influential figures redirect their focus from corporate engagement to a singular emphasis on climate negotiations.
The UK Government has introduced a high degree of commercialisation to COP26, and companies have recognised that addressing their impact upon the climate is both a societal responsibility and a necessary step to maintain the confidence of their customers and stakeholders.
That’s particularly true with younger generations, with FleishmanHillard’s ‘The Voice of the Climate Generation’ study showing that Gen Z wants a greater cross-section of society involved in solving the climate crisis.
So what should companies expect around COP26, and how do they need to fine-tune their plans to make the summit a success?
1. Climate Negotiations First and Foremost
The efforts by companies to raise the profile of COP26 and elevate the standards for climate commitments has been tremendously positive. But COP26 will be unlike other summits frequented by CEOs and c-suite executives, which risks catching some by surprise if they expect a Davos-style experience.
Glasgow will host two weeks of intense, technical, policy-focused negotiations between governments, UN organisations, NGOs and other civil society bodies.
It will be a marathon of big, high-stakes decisions and important, granular details, with experts, researchers and Sherpas hammering out and codifying agreements. With a complicated geopolitical and humanitarian landscape as we enter COP26, given the COVID-19 pandemic, actions by China and other large emitters, and other issues, it’s a herculean task.
Even with a large programme of COP26 fringe events and pavilion gatherings, companies and their leaders will not be centre stage – the negotiations will be.
That means the views of CEOs and companies will largely be secondary to the debates over global and country-by-country commitments, potentially unusual territory.
2. Managing the Unmatched Media Threshold
The world’s climate and environment media will descend upon Glasgow, even with COVID-19 capacity restrictions for journalists.
Their coverage will prioritise the negotiations and the chances for meaningful progress from political decision-makers, particularly as the summit advances and we get a sense of optimism or pessimism around tricky topics.
Leading climate journalists have indicated that corporate initiatives need to be truly world-changing and global in scale to generate coverage. And while some companies may meet that threshold, traditional PR activities should be supplemented with content on owned and paid channels, particularly digital and social, to reach audiences within the COP26 bubble and beyond.
3. New Form of CEO Climate Advocacy
FleishmanHillard’s 2021 ‘Authenticity Gap’ research shows that 73% of consumers expect CEOs to have an active voice supporting and influencing environmental policy change.
Many have stepped forward to promote climate initiatives this year – from net zero pledges, to supply chain transformations, to commitments to mitigate the impact upon vulnerable communities. But their role will shift significantly as we reach COP26.
Rather than talk about themselves and their actions, companies and their leaders will be expected to validate, advance and shape the negotiations.
This means adjusting messages to encourage negotiators to go further, faster – and promote specific global commitments, advocate for certain paths in policy-making, and apply pressure on trouble-spots.
It will require taking input from COP26 leadership and ‘reading the room’, as well as being brave enough to take a stand on potentially challenging topics.
4. Post-COP26 Positioning
The pressure on COP26 to be a success is immense, but solving the climate crisis requires ongoing political, business and societal action. So even as we focus on 31 October – 12 November, it’s the days, weeks, months and years following that will dictate the future of the planet.
While negotiators will need to rest and recover after two weeks of sleepless nights at COP26, the work begins anew for companies and CEOs on 13 November.
They have established a platform over the past year for climate communications and will have an opportunity to be even more vocal about the need for progress.
Based on societal and business trends, normalising ongoing communications about significant climate action will work in their favour, yielding the best results for the shareholders, stakeholders and the planet.
Michael Hartt, head of international affairs.
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November 20, 2023
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