PR industry must do more to fight climate misinformation

Climate misinformation research for PRCA

Research by the PRCA  Misinformation in the Climate Crisis Strategy Group reveals an industry ready to tackle climate misinformation, but nervous about expertise and bandwagoning. More than 80% of those surveyed are already playing an active role in advising the organisations they work for on how to navigate the climate crisis debate. 

Not surprisingly client demand for expert counsel on the ‘climate crisis’ debate has increased in recent years, with 71% of PR professionals reporting that they are giving advice on this topic more frequently than they were five years ago.

Communicating in the climate change space is challenging as opinions can be polarised. What I personally find fascinating is the language used in the PRCA’s (Public Relations and Communications Association) report and news release as they both touch on the contoversial issue of language. The news release and report consistently refer to ‘climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’. Some media organisations have changed their style guides to prefer the term climate crisis (The Guardian), others (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) advise against it and prefer to use the term climate change. The most recent AP Style Guide (used by journalists writing in American English) uses the term climate change.

However, the news release also uses the word ‘debate’ as the full sentence reads “Over 80% of those surveyed are already playing an active role in advising the organisations they work for on how to navigate the climate crisis debate.” The word debate would not be used in conjunction with climate change, but is understandable in relation to the term climate crisis.

In November the UK hosts the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow (assuming it still goes ahead as a face to face event). It is notable that it is the climate change conference and not the climate crisis conference.

Personally, I’m still open to persuasion on the use of either term. The term climate crisis has lots of problems. It isn’t as widely used or understood. There is also the risk of crisis fatigue as if it is used for too long then it loses any sense of urgency. It means long before the world has taken the necessary steps to change then people will no longer be thinking of it as a crisis. Another challenge with the term climate crisis is it alienates people and creates sceptism.

My biggest concern is that climate change deniers are now a fringe minority, but my fear is using the term climate crisis will alienate the very people we need to persuade and encourage to change. It is agressive use of language.

That said, there can be no doubt of the urgency of the case for change. Where there is no certainty is what that change should be. It was incredibly encouraging hearing John Kerry, the USA’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr and talking about his ideas for technology solutions. One of them was the exciting potential of small modular reactors (SMRs) or mini-nuclear power plants.

The UK is at the forefront of SMR technology and the UK SMR consortium led by Rolls-Royce yesterday revealed its latest SMR design which increases the power output from 440 megawatts to 470 megawatts. To put this into context it provides enough reliable low carbon power to serve the needs of about one million homes. The UK SMR consortium expects to complete its first unit in the early 2030s with up to 10 completed by 2035. The easiest way to explain SMRs is they are manufactured in factories and then the parts are assembled on a smaller site than a traditional nuclear power station. This makes them much faster and cheaper to build that the traditional construction of a huge nuclear power plant.

Rolls-Royce SMR concept picture
The new shape of the SMR makes it more efficient so able to generate even more green energy.

I worked with Roll-Royce to assist with public affairs to encourage the government to support its SMR programme, but am not currently working with it or the UK SMR consortium. The UK government has invested about £18 million to support its design and £215 million has been set aside for the SMR programme as part of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’.

John Kerry is one of the most persuasive communicators and thinkers I’ve heard talking about climate change. He strikes the right note between explaining the urgent need for change while not sounding extremist and therefore alienating the very people who we need to support and implement the changes we need.

The PRCA study of almost 200 UK PR and communications professionals was conducted by Opinium to explore current perception of the climate crisis and misinformation, the role of communications professionals within it and the challenges that need to be addressed. 

While 71% said the advice was being requested, the majority of respondents (60%) felt that the organisations they represent all too often jumped on a bandwagon rather than take any meaningful action on the climate crisis. What’s more, nervousness around entering the debate was felt by a fifth of the respondents (18%) with nearly two fifths (39%) highlighting the feeling of the organisations they work for needing to be an ‘expert’ before being able to contribute to the debate.

Tackling climate misinformation

“What this research has done is give this strategy group a clear goal: to help comms professionals fight the spread of misinformation by levelling up their knowledge, celebrating genuine action and providing best practice. 
“This year has to be about moving beyond intent and into action. There is a heap of extraordinary work coming from industries including energy, manufacturing and technology that is perhaps being silenced in favour of bandwagoning and greenwashing. If this strategy group can play a meaningful role in changing the narrative from one of fear, nervousness and false promises to confidence, clarity and action, then we’ll have fulfilled our goal.”

John Brown, chair of the PRCA Misinformation in the Climate Crisis Strategy Group and founder of Don’t Cry Wolf

Another interesting aspect of the Opinium research asked PR professionals about what personal actions they were taking.

PR industry must do more to fight climate misinformation 1

I’ve done or am doing six of these personal actions. I’m interested in and constantly learning more about climate change issues and use that learning to contribute to discussions and debate. I also use that knowledge to inform and counsel my clients. I’ve checked my own carbon footprint and scored reasonably well, with the main issue being international flights for work (so it would be much better if I did it for the last 12 months!). Before the pandemic I used public transport (the train) for most of my long distance journeys. At the moment I’d be hesitant to return and would want to drive rather than do a long train journey wearing a mask. Using public transport more for local journeys is challenging as it is far too slow, unreliable and expensive in West Yorkshire compared to London or indeed many cities around the world.

We use Octopus Energy as our energy supplier, which led by CEO Greg Jackson is one of the most ethical energy suppliers there is. We downsized to be a one car family several years ago and switched to a hybrid about four years ago.

The vehicle one is a good example of how hard it is to take personal action. The technology simply doesn’t exist yet at an affordable price. We really wanted to switch to electric or hybrid, but there was only one car on the market that met our requirements – the Mitsubushi Outlander PHEV. Unfortunately, it was just outside our available budget. Luckily we managed to find a 12 month old model with just 1,500 on the clock at an amazing price. The challenge will be when we come to replace it as electric batteries have a limited life and Mitsubishi has pulled out of the UK market and currently I don’t think there is any affordable alternative.

I look forward to seeing what the PRCA Misinformation in the Climate Crisis Strategy Group does to help the PR and communications industry deal with climate change and hope to be able to contribute to its work.

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