Keeping the lights on and emissions down: Comms and the energy sector

From behaviour change to crisis management to global advocacy, Nick Turton MCIPR delves into recent polling among senior communication professionals in energy and climate change.

Energy is all about molecules and electrons, right? It’s the stuff of engineers and scientists, of big power stations and oil platforms? Well, that’s certainty partly true. But look a little closer. Consider these three moments from the past year:

  • On 27 June, legislation completed its passage through Parliament requiring the UK to end its contribution to climate change entirely by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.
  • On 9 August, a freak set of events on the UK electricity grid led to the loss of power to more than a million customers, with knock on consequences for trains across the South East, Ipswich hospital and Newcastle airport.
  • On 13 December, the UK was formally confirmed as chair of the most significant global climate negotiations since the Paris Agreement, to culminate in hosting the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November this year.

In different ways, they serve to illustrate how central professional communication and communicators have become to the field of energy and climate change, and in diverse ways.

The net-zero target will call for sophisticated skills in consumer engagement to bring about far-reaching changes in how we live our lives.  According to the Government’s expert advisers at the Committee on Climate Change, behaviour change will be needed to achieve up to two thirds of the cuts in emissions required over the next three decades.

As for the blackout, well, as crises go, it’s up there. Customer relations, PR, corporate affairs, internal and other communication teams within affected organisations will have been working frantically to manage the operational, reputational and financial fallout.

Lastly, COP26 will demand unparalleled diplomatic efforts, with professionals skilled in coalition building and global advocacy needed to pull off a global emission-cutting deal capable of averting the worst of the climate emergency.

These are just three instances, but recent polling by the CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform of senior professional communicators working in energy and climate change suggests the ask is huge, the skills diverse and, perhaps more than anything, they’ve got their work cut out.

Despite the apparent growth in concern about the climate emergency, some 95% of those surveyed believe the general public has a weak understanding of the energy system and the challenges it faces. The mainstream media also fares badly on 67%. This contrasts, not surprisingly, with the scientific and engineering community which is seen as having by far the strongest understanding of the issues.

Not only that, but financial matters appear to trump bigger planetary concerns. The cost to the consumer is seen as the number one barrier to public acceptance of the changes needed to bring about the energy transition. And executive pay is singled out by 70% of respondents as having the most detrimental impact on the sector’s overall social licence to operate, followed by prices.

This same polling also sheds light on how senior professionals feel about the status and state of their profession within the energy world. Most positively, three quarters of those surveyed believe communication is valued at the top of their organisations as a function akin to legal, accountancy and engineering. The picture is also positive in terms of how much the wider workforce values the function, though less so, on 58%.

In two thirds of organisations, the most senior communications professional is at Director or CEO level and, in most of those cases, the profession is also represented at board level.

This is perhaps no surprise given reputational risk and crisis management is rated the number one reason communication professionals are valued in the sector. Clearly, we are still the people to have around in a crisis!

But the mix of skills required has changed markedly, as in most other sectors, with integrated PR and social and digital media skills now ranking the most important, followed by behavioural science and data analytics. Traditional media relations is outflanked by them all.

Navigating and influencing this crowded field of large corporates, start-ups, direct action NGOs, think tanks, consumer groups and governments clearly isn’t for the uninitiated. That probably explains why, for new entrants, it’s experience at the coal face that gets you in the door, not academic qualifications. Previous experience in energy or in another sector are by far the preferred background when recruiting, rated by a combined total of 76%. An academic PR qualification on its own is rated by only 9% of respondents.

But it’s a profession that appears to be inclusive. Twice as many respondents see their communications team as representative of society, as see it as unrepresentative. This bucks the trend in energy, a sector known for its lack of diversity, particularly at the top. In fact only 29% feel their board is representative of society. Given the need for the sector to reflect, understand and change society, this is surely a red flag.

But despite the gargantuan challenges and very real concerns, senior communication professionals responding to the survey are not short of passion and enthusiasm for their work and encouragement for others to enter the field.

“You are communicating through a period of highly dynamic change in an industry that is transforming the way we live our lives and the manner in which we manage our resources and the planet”, writes one. Others describe it as “a career in a sector at the top of the agenda for politicians, the media and the public” providing an “opportunity to mould messaging that changes people’s minds and hearts”.

One concluded it offers “the opportunity to shape the biggest challenge humanity has faced. This is it, there is nothing more important you could be working on”.

Nick Turton MCIPR is External Affairs Director at the Energy Institute and a board member of the CIPR Energy Leadership Platform

Photo by Anna Jiménez Calaf on Unsplash

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