As an education institution how do you handle the climate strikes and what does it say about your brand?

Since Greta Thunberg started her solo protest in Sweden in 2018, students have been striking for climate in more than 100 countries across the world. Strikes first started in November 2018, with Greta prompting the FridaysforFuture protests which 1000s of school and university students took part in. September 2019 has seen even greater numbers taking to the streets to show their support and to voice their desire for action.

But as Greta reminded us while visiting the USA last week, she should be back home in school right now, not across the sea trying to educate politicians. She raises a good point, not just that politicians need to take a long hard look at how they act, but that thousands of students have recently been absent from their studies to try and give their governments a wake-up call.

If you are a school or a university, how are you responding to your students striking and are you thinking about what that says to your communities about your brand? Choosing to support or not sends a message and forces us to face what we stand for in the context of real world events. If you take a look at just a few mission statements across international K12 providers, you’ll find they pretty much all claim to develop internationally minded global citizens who truly make an impact on the world around them. Often, this is better evidenced outside of the classroom.

It’s not always easy to do the right thing – safety of students has to be a key consideration when allowing them out of school – and how do you involve the 6 year olds who also want to take part?

In some countries you are also up against your government, in The Netherlands there can be strict fines for absenteeism from school. In the early days of the climate strikes, the then UK Prime Minister Teresa May criticised the strikes as a waste of lesson and teaching time, and in Australia the PM called for more learning and “less activism”. 

Universities have long had the climate challenge on their hands, across different countries, the UK included. While scientists globally have recently voiced their support for Greta and the striking students of the world, university students are taking the opportunity to hold a mirror up to university leadership to ask the question – what are you doing to support the climate change goals? While most university campuses will have carbon neutral plans and environmentally supportive networks, there are still those which receive financial support from large fossil fuel industries. It’s been a difficult conversation that many a university press office has had to battle with. The main response being that, if you want to change the large global energy providers to more sustainable forms – then best to be working from within. That may be so, but if your brand prides itself on its sustainable conscience and environmental expertise, urging students to change the world for the better, then you might want to think more carefully about whether you really are walking the talk.

As far as communicating at an opportune moment goes, Sheffield University in the UK chose last week to announce that it was launching compulsory climate change lectures for all of its students over the next 5 years – whatever their discipline. This was decided in direct response to the climate emergency, and gained them widespread coverage. While their Vice Chancellor was called out at the same time for his large spend on global flights, it remains a positive story and an effective brand message to its potential new undergraduates.

While education providers are faced with internal issues on a daily basis, there are times like these when an extraordinary global movement can force them to think about their core values before they start to communicate.  Students have increasingly become less passive consumers of education and now they have channels to voice that globally, instantly. This is where the value of your communications function comes in to play. As well as dealing with what is coming into their inbox now, they are also best placed for horizon scanning of what world event is coming down the line that your organisation will need, or should have, a view on. Best to be able to take time to think about that response, and make sure your internal stakeholders are aligned as much as possible.

Then see if Greta is still making you feel uncomfortable…