The Art Of Communicating Cleantech Risk

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A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article described ways that businesses could use savvy communications with shareholders to soften the blow when bad news is on the horizon. Let’s look at some of those ideas and adapt them specifically to the world of cleantech risk. We can learn a lot about how conveying and consuming information has the potential to win over — over even just hold onto — cleantech shareholders.

The HBR article, titled “The Art of Communicating Risk,” argues that “the tech sector, in particular, has suffered a large and growing trust deficit with users, customers, and regulators, in part because tech companies struggle to communicate what they do and do not know about the side effects of their products in ways that are transparent and meaningful.”

Communicating about uncertainty, also known as “risk communications,” requires adept notifications that strengthen a trust relationship with the subset of customers who are at possible jeopardy. The tendency is to bombard constituents with too much information — which creates notification fatigue and diminished the level of ambient trust between firms and the public.

On the other hand, waiting too long to communicate in an effort to shield users from unnecessary worry also can have negative consequences. “Customers interpret time lags as incompetence, or worse, as obfuscation and protection of corporate reputations at the expense of protecting customers,” say HBR authors Ann Cleaveland, Jessica Cussins Newman, and Steven Weber. They note that either too much or too little communication can make it “harder … to thread the needle and get the communications right.”

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Driven in part by increasing polarization, rapid technological change, the spread of disinformation, and new expectations on both the workforce and society, fewer than 20% of individuals globally feel trust in the current economic system. To start to repair the trust deficit within cleantech will require a significant retrofit of existing communications practices.

Here are 3 places to start.

Stop Improvising About Cleantech Risk

Accelerating cleantech development can seem insurmountable as the world adapts to a COVID-19-limited world. The global economy has been forced to develop new methods of collaboration, so that direct human interaction and onsite meetings have been replaced largely by remote work and video conferences. Cleantech businesses can use these new ways of work and communicating to develop strategies where customers can feel safe, depend upon relationships, and rely on certain stakeholder truths.

Trust is associated with stronger economic growth, increased innovation, greater stability, and better health outcomes. Consumers can become sensitized to the linkages between cleantech production, consumption, and disposal systems, for example, and the environmental impacts caused by such structures. To do so would reinforce trust as an important mediator between corporate activities and consumer loyalty.

Delloitte Insights describes how business leaders can look to instilling and building trust in their stakeholders by placing themselves in their stakeholders’ places and consider the needs of each across 4 dimensions of trust: physical, emotional, financial, and digital. With advanced planning, leaders can communicate about the areas they can control, such as product and service quality, treating their employees well, commitment to behaving ethically and transparently, and digital competence.

In that way, cleantech companies infuse communicative actions with purpose and integrity.

Committing to engaging with customers around uncertainty in systematic, predictable ways like innovations can set reasonable expectations among users and customers for what meaningful and transparent communication looks like under uncertainty. This, the HBR authors state, can “help increase the public’s risk fluency and limit the damage inflicted by nefarious actors who prey on the public’s anxieties about risk.”

Change The Metric For Success & Measure Results

In the short term, equipping customers with the information they need to interpret uncertainty and act to manage their risk means increasing levels of ambient trust. Consumer doubts may persist about product performance, exacerbated by the competing views expressed in various media.

Yet Schniering and Fischedick at the World Economic Forum say that an increasing demand for interdisciplinary interaction — which results from the complex technological systems which must be transformed substantially if we are to fundamentally decarbonize human activity in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement — can be communicated in ways that embrace  rather than alienate customers.

The key is to communicate more complex ideas and inventions in ways that the broader public can digest through a set of rations and key performance indicators. In that way, the non-expert yet educated audience is in the picture even on niche segments of the energy transformation.

Strategic cleantech communications emphasize risk reduction where possible. Communicators need to demonstrate that what they are doing is working, and creating yardsticks that rigorously measure the effectiveness of communications against both short and long term goals are ways to engage and calm stakeholders.

Design For Risk Communications From The Beginning

The concept of risk should be built into every stage of development and production, called “risk communication by design.” Communicating uncertainty about how a cleantech product or service will perform when released into the marketplace needs to be pushed down through cleantech organizations.

Innovations in user experience and user interface design are important areas about which to communicate with customers. Feedback loops built directly into products as part of the design process, according to the HBR authors, involve telling firms whether they are meaningfully improving customers’ ability to make informed choices.

Concern over cleantech risk may also be assuaged when companies encourage their research communities to work collaboratively within and across the boundaries of their infrastructures. When cleantech researchers reveal their modeling approaches, their social objectives, and their desire effectively to bring rigorous science to the forefront, they cast decision analysis in terms of tolerable risk, conduct policy-relevant counterfactual experiments, participate in organized model comparison exercises, and reveal other research strategies as part of their common scientific toolsets.

Final Thoughts About Cleantech Risk Communications

Communicating stakeholder trust should be one of the primary items on business leaders’ agendas so that cleantech risk is transparent. Vision and purpose grounded in trust, when delivered competently, openly, honestly, and with clear intent, has the potential to accelerate a company’s resiliency.

Times like the COVID-19 crisis offer cleantech companies a vital opportunity to lead with trust. Communicating with a common thread directed to act for the greater good instills cleantech stakeholders with a sense of trust. Intentional communication about trust serves stakeholders well and readies organizations to move forward toward the promise of success alongside accelerated multifaceted initiatives and assured long-term objectives.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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