David Willans, Sustainability Director at Bladonmore, on the top three takeaways for sustainability communications from Davos.
Davos. 4 days. 2,658 attendees. 100s of journalists. 634 CEOs. PCR tests every 24 hours (allegedly).
Regardless of what you think of it, for communicators, Davos is a fascinating event because it gives you an insight into the state of the debate and dominant narrative themes at the highest levels.
There were a lot of specifics on everything from green hydrogen to inflation, China, ethical AI, supply chains, digital infrastructure, water, nature, international financial and sustainability standards. This short read covers the top three Davos takeaways for communicators whose remit includes sustainability.
The FT’s Year in a Word for 2022 was ‘polycrisis’. The world, and all of us in it, are facing multiple crises at the same time and all are interlinked. CNN pundit Richard Quest’s ‘worry wall’ device in his Davos interviews showed leaders considering the connections. They are worth digging out.
Communicators tend to focus on single issues, because in simpler times, it was more effective. When it comes to sustainability and especially E, S and G issues, the default focus for communicators are the issues themselves – tons of carbon, water, improvements in equality and inclusion numbers and certification standards.
As business communicators we’ve got to remember that just talking about the actions and progress we’re making on these issues isn’t enough. We’ve got to make these actions relevant to the businesses that we represent. Internally, sustainability professionals are (or should be) adept at this. Yet externally, only a minority make these connections, with most preferring to talk about how they’ve met their DE&I targets, or carbon reductions.
In the context of the interconnected polycrisis, this singular approach is a trick missed. Davos discussions made it clear that communicators need to be explicit about making the connection between business actions, multiple issues and business results. The ability to do this comes from building the understanding of these connections and thinking strategically about which links to bring to the fore.
BCG’s Henderson Institute’s term for businesses getting caught up in political issues is ‘corporate entanglement’. That kind of implies that businesses can avoid such risks. It’s quite clear that post-COVID, Davos, and the coming wave of green policies spurred by Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, that avoidance isn’t an option.
That means that business communicators need to be clear about the principles their business is using for decision-making. Be clear-headed about what different audience responses are likely to be and, most importantly, be clear about which audiences really matter for the business and which don’t. The reason for this leads us onto the final point.
Prepare for pushbacks
It’s not just activists and Al Gore who are getting angry about the slow pace of change, despite big promises. The heads of the UN, the International Energy Agency and others are running up the dial on their criticisms, too. On the other side, right-wing media and certain US states are pushing back. Businesses need to realise that they will get met with angry responses regardless of what they do and say, or don’t. As Dita Von Teese said “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
A little extra because you got this far. At Davos, PCR tests were mandatory and air filters were evident in many of the meeting rooms. The world’s elite, who it’s safe to say are generally well informed, are still taking COVID seriously, even if you live in a city where it seems like yesterday’s news.
If you would like support on how to tell your sustainability story better and how to equip your execs to deal with angry pushback, please, get in touch.