Agencies are tepid in their response to climate change

Amid tempers and temperatures rising, The Navigators founder and director Dean Harris explores the comms industry's presence in climate discussions.

I was simultaneously intrigued, entertained and energised by the sound and fury of Malcolm Turnbull giving Paul Kelly, editor at large of The Australian, both barrels on Q&A last week. While taking Kelly to task over News Corp’s appalling track record at promoting climate change denial, the former PM asserted: “Saying you believe or disbelieve in global warming is like saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity!”

His remark cut to the heart of the matter, that while global warming is pure physics, communication will be critical to how we solve it.

Earlier this year, I became a member of CommsDeclare, an emerging non-partisan group of Australian communications industry people whose mission is to harness the power of communications, marketing, media and advertising to supercharge the transition to a climate-friendly future.  As a long-standing member of the market research part of the communications industry, The Navigators was delighted to lend support by undertaking, on behalf of CommsDeclare, a survey of Australian communications agency leaders to build an understanding of their position and practices in regard to addressing climate change.

There are three key survey insights about the Australian communications industry that are worth sharing.

  • Our heads and hearts are in the right place but we’re a long way from where we need to be

The importance of our industry in tackling global warming is appreciated by many. More than 8 in 10 agencies agreed or strongly agreed that communications agencies have a responsibility to help people understand the causes, threats and actions that need to be taken to reduce global warming and about seven in ten view advocacy for climate action as aligned to their agency’s business strategy.

The vast majority of agencies have also taken positive steps to reduce emissions through better sourcing energy from renewable sources, installing energy-conserving devices, seeking suppliers with sustainable products and business practices and encouraging staff to make climate-friendly decisions with regard to transport.

But, when it comes to having formal policies about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, prioritising climate action within the agency’s mission, strategy and core values, or even understanding their current carbon footprint, considerably fewer than half the responding agencies were able to declare such practices.

  • We struggle to reconcile taking a stronger, public position on climate action with doing business

The area of greatest uncertainty for many in our industry is how to reconcile commercial imperatives with taking a stronger, public position on climate change.

For a sizeable number of agency leaders, internally held climate commitments do not translate to commercial considerations. Only one in two agency leaders indicated that climate-related risks and opportunities informed their decisions about who they would work for.

When talking to industry folk about their views on whether agencies should refuse to work for fossil fuel producers, I find that people tend to reflect on an analogous decision of whether to work on behalf of tobacco companies, an issue that seemed to be more of an ethical quandary in the last millennia. In retrospect, saying no to tobacco clients now seems like an obvious and sensible decision.

In the recent survey, just over one in 10 responding agencies indicated they had worked for a fossil fuel producing client in the last 12 months. Furthermore, only one in three agreed with the proposition that agencies should refuse to work with clients who are involved with producing fossil fuels, indicating that a sizeable majority of industry leaders do not rule out working for fossil fuel-producing clients in the future.

So, when it comes to selling our communication expertise to companies that legally produce products that have very significant health consequences, our industry leaders view tobacco and fossil fuel production very differently.

  • Media agencies feel less able to take a public position on climate action

In comparing responses by agency type, it is clear that media agencies are far more challenged by acting on their internally held beliefs that climate change is an important issue and that communications agencies have an important role to play.

One example of this is in regard to their position on whether they would refuse to work for fossil fuel producers. Of the 27 media agency leaders who responded to the survey, only 4 (15%) agreed that agencies should refuse to work for fossil fuel producers, compared to nearly half (48%) of all other creative, brand and PR agencies.

Another is in regard to their preparedness to publicly declare a climate emergency. While only 14% of all responding agencies have publicly declared a climate emergency to date, 43% indicate that they would be prepared to do so in the near future. When it comes to media agencies, only 23% indicate they are prepared to publicly declare a climate emergency in the near future.

One wonders why media agencies as a whole are less able to take a public stand on climate action. Could it have something to do with the climate action position held by certain large media proprietors, such as those who employ Mr Kelly?

On Q&A Malcolm gave us a brilliant example of highly effective communication, simply and evocatively framing the issue of climate denialism in a way that gets people to lean forward, pay attention and think differently. It’s past time for more of us in the communications industry to follow his lead and a good place to start is to join CommsDeclare.

Dean Harris is the founder and director of The Navigators and a member of CommsDeclare.

Survey details: The inaugural CommsDeclare agency survey was conducted by The Navigators in conjunction with TrinityP3. Two hundred agencies were invited to respond to an online survey in September of this year.  Of the 77 agencies responding, we received a representative mix of creative, brand, media and PR agencies, both public and privately owned and an almost even split between larger agencies, employing more than 50 people and smaller agencies, employing fewer.


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