COP21: What brands can do to stay on the right side of climate crisis coverage

As world leaders meet at COP21 in Paris over the next two weeks to discuss how to tackle the global climate change crisis, the media’s increased focus on the environment presents an opportunity for brands. However, they need to be genuine and cautious, comms experts warn.

Big business has found it hard to get a positive reaction when addressing issues around the environment in 2015. COP21, this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, takes place in Paris from 30 November to 11 December, presents a chance to change this but should be approached with caution by companies that feel like they have something to prove in the sustainability stakes, according to three leading comms experts.

They recommend that brands looking to secure news coverage around sensitive consumer issues, such as the environment, should consider where they stand on three key points: substance, leadership and timing.

Substance – have a strong and genuine story to tell

“I don’t believe companies should be looking to “hijack” news around the Paris conference unless they have a very strong, genuine and well-established story to tell”, says Mike Sergeant, director at Headland Consultancy and the account lead for the David Attenborough-backed renewable energy investment campaign Global Apollo Initiative.

“In designing the Global Apollo campaign, we deliberately chose not to court big energy companies as partners, as this wasn’t a platform for advancing narrow commercial interests. Nor did we look for the support of any corporates hoping to use David Attenborough’s campaign to “green wash” their image and buy a positive association.”

Brands looking to speak with sincerity around environmental issues should avoid appearing self-serving, explains *Andy Last, founder of Salt Communications**. “The golden rule for brands and companies in relation to communicating around climate change is to make sure their actions match their words.”

Leadership – contribute to the solution

COP21 has already been a forum for good brand involvement, with positive coverage for the likes of the HSBC and Tata Steel-backed Indian ‘Solar Alliance’ and the Facebook (amongst others) supported Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

“For a company ready to take a leadership position in their sector and to do something of real substance, it could also be an opportunity to assert their position and identify themselves as contributing to the solution”, explains Gareth Wynn, senior managing director in FTI’s energy practice. “However it is important to keep in mind that the Paris meeting itself is for the negotiators. Business needs to be seen as supportive of the process but not trying to subvert or hijack it.”

Companies with the most to prove and who make the biggest environmental impact can make the biggest material difference, Wynn adds. “Leadership and innovation from these firms could be a real help in positioning them as part of the solution and will do no harm in strengthening their brand among policy makers grappling with how best to address the challenge of climate change.”

Timing – be sensitive and there is no ‘quick fix’

Ultimately though, companies that are a perceived as doing ongoing damage to the environment should think carefully about the timing of their involvement in Paris. Sergeant says: “The climate conference certainly isn’t an opportunity for environmentally detrimental companies to reform their image. Reputation in this area must be painstakingly built over time – supported by positive actions at every level of the business.”

The environment is an emotive issue and COP21, for its high-profile global involvement and far-reaching aims, will continue to generate news coverage. Businesses have an important role to play in addressing the issues of climate change, but brand involvement or ‘hijacking’ news coverage over this two week window should be carefully considered.

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