The Connection Between Sustainability and Communications: An Introduction
Part 1 in the blog series The New PR
The role of communications professional has dramatically and irrevocably changed in recently years. The instant-information age has not only changed the ways in which information is shared, it has exponentially increased the amount of information that people both need and receive. In media relations the news cycle has expanded to 24 hours; and the increasing prevalence and importance of non-traditional social media (and the increasing influence of bloggers and citizen-journalists) have required more than a change in tactics. These changes in the world around us have fundamentally changed - increased - stakeholder expectations and, as a result traditional communications functions are being redefined as well. Organizations that wish to communicate with credibility are moving from ‘spin’ and toward ‘transparency,’ inviting and hosting the conversation and are being asked to be increasingly more open about their aspirations and their efforts to achieve them; sometimes even acknowledging their shortcomings. In this way increasingly companies are expected to shift their focus to actions, not spin; action to conduct with initiative and fidelity a company's relations with its stakeholders.
At the same time, the connection between sustainability programs and corporate communications efforts is more than a philosophical one. Because of the strong and increasing importance that employees, customers, clients and communities place on the environmental, social and economic impacts an organization has, many of the duties traditionally assigned to company’s communications departments to build internal buy-in (organizational culture and employee engagement) and reputational capital (external, community and public relations) can best be accomplished by maximizing the effective development, implementation, management and communication of CSR efforts across a company.
In my own experience leading organizational change (including a major restructure and redeployment plan, implementing a new mission, and vision, changing name, logo and graphic identify, mergers and acquisitions) as well as community, public, government and stakeholder relations efforts resulted in my leading a team that was tasked with building a program based on the company’s established corporate commitments to environmental, social and economic progress that would not only motivate employees, but would actively engage stakeholders and provide a greater return on our investment. In the process, the program went from being an “added value” to being integrated into a wide array of company outreach efforts that facilitated recruitment, community support for operations, government relations activities, shareholder outreach and more.
As the program evolved it became apparent that we were changing the way that the company communicated. Rather than speaking “to” the various constituencies through established statements and prepared press releases, we were developing and engaging in a real dialogue. We embraced transparency as a more effective way reach out to those who were integral to the company’s continued success. At the same time, the principles of transparency served us well when we were faced with the occasional unfavorable events. When we had problems or “bad” news, we proactively reached out to our employees, regulators and the public – directly and through the media. This helped to further enhance the image of the company as well. I call this transformation “The New PR.”
“The New PR” includes opening up, and letting the public physically (open houses, plant tours, presentations and regular meetings with local opinion leaders, civic associations and the creation of citizens' advisory committees) as well as figuratively; engaging in dialogue rather than outreach. This can be accomplished by shifting from a focus on press releases about local good works and instead participating and even hosting blog conversations with the public – including some of your most vocal critics.
In my experience people have been pleasantly surprised when a company no longer “hides” behind its gates and web site, and instead demonstrates that it is both eager and proud to share their story.
The reasons this is a successful strategy is because the principles of sustainability not only redefine the company as a “good” citizen, but also because increasing stakeholder interest (demand) for corporate responsibility provides an opportunity to become an more attractive neighbor, employer, customer in addition to the preferred supplier compared with less socially-conscious competitors.
Today, we have seen the effects of a loss of public confidence not only in individual companies, but the way businesses have been operating. Stakeholders (employees, consumers, communities, investors and government regulators) are becoming more and more insistent that businesses act in a manner that is socially responsible. In the United States this has primarily focused on environmental impacts such as carbon emissions, use of natural resources (such as wood, stone and water) and energy consumption. A company that bases its culture and actions on sustainability is at a strategic advantage with stakeholders who care about these issues because when this culture redefines the company, PR can take advantage of this “convenient truth.”
John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW).
Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices.
His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.
Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.