Enter the Sustainable Century – Part 3
Strategic communication for business will be critical as President Obama ushers in a new green vision for America and the world.
“We will move forward with investments to transform our energy economy, while providing incentives to make clean energy the profitable kind of energy. We will press ahead with deep cuts in emissions to reach the goals that we set for 2020, and eventually 2050. We will continue to promote renewable energy and efficiency, and share new technologies with countries around the world. And we will seize every opportunity for progress to address this threat in a cooperative effort with the entire world."
- From President Barack Obama’s Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 2009
As mentioned in my previous post, President Obama is ushering in a new green vision for America and the world. Each company will need to take a close look at its current strategy, and determine where, when and how it makes sense to introduce or expand environmental sustainability programs, partnerships, policies and processes into its operations. But in terms of strategic communication and stakeholder outreach in support of business goals, there are some clear and deliberate actions that every company, regardless of size or sector, should be actively considering.
Get moving! This is a unique point in time, a confluence of public sentiment favoring all things green, a public policy environment that supports it and marketplace opportunities that are rewarding it. The business benefits of a genuine commitment to environmental sustainability are now well established and early movers will have distinct advantages. Corporate communications may be the quarterback, but every division of your company has a role to play, and nearly every facet of your operation can take advantage. This starts in the executive office (with board level oversight and encouragement), and includes sales, marketing and advertising, government relations, investor relations, operations, R&D, product groups, finance, legal and HR. Integration is critical – get everybody on board, on target and on message.
But not too fast… Don’t rush to your new environmental messaging and outreach before fully understanding the opportunities, audiences, issues, risks and benefits. Understand what your stakeholders expect. Conduct research, and then still more research. You know that policy-makers and NGOs are interested, but your customers and employees care about this too. Work to understand why, and what it means to your business. Consumer expectations are increasingly high for all companies to do their part across the board, but they expect more from certain industries and sectors. The good news is that, in spite of the global recession, consumers still seem to prefer environmentally responsible products, and many are willing to pay a premium for them. The research here is becoming increasingly clear – consumers want products that are environmentally responsible, they prefer companies whose operations are environmentally sensitive, they want this information available at multiple levels (including at the retail level), and they want companies to be able to prove what they say.
Under-promise and over-deliver. Consumers are increasingly savvy and increasingly skeptical when it comes to the environment. Your commitment must be real, your product claims must be genuine, and your stories must be authentic. Green products from a company or industry with a questionable social and environmental record don’t add up. Make sure the company’s left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Be clear, be consistent, be as transparent as possible, and be ready to prove whatever you say. Don’t take shortcuts, do not greenwash – you get one chance to do it right, so be sure to do it right
But don’t be afraid to tell your green story. If you have a good story to tell – a great product, a great process, a model partnership with an environmental NGO – talk about it, celebrate it. If it’s genuine and if it has impact, it’s okay to brag a little. Your stakeholders want to know, others can learn from your model and no one else is going to tell your story better than you. Be sure to find the right communications channels and vehicles that will best convey your good story to the audiences and stakeholders that matter most to you – media relations, online, product packaging, integrated with advertising, marketing collateral – whatever works best.
In the midst of the worst economy in recent memory, dozens of America’s biggest companies and most storied brands—from McDonalds to AT&T to General Electric to Proctor and Gamble—have launched green initiatives, and are getting their stories out there effectively. Regardless of what one thinks about politics or about President Obama’s new green vision, it’s clear that the sustainable century is here to stay. The most successful companies, in America and around the world, will be those that rise to meet it.
Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington D.C, and writer for the Hill & Knowlton Blog, ResponsAbility.