Five “Keys” to Unlock a Successful Sustainability Program - Key 4: Tangible, Local Benefits
“All politics is local” – Tip O’Neil
With exceptions such as relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and other disasters that draw international attention and concern, for the most part, people like to see the benefit of corporations in their own community. Impacts such as employment opportunities, contributions to tax revenues and bringing needed goods and services to the community are easily understood and appreciated. At the same time, noise of production and vehicular traffic are easily recognized local consequences.
A benefit of a sustainability program is that it reports and offers information on the wider breadth of impacts. Effective programs do not offer theoretical impacts, but rather transparently report the impacts that are measurable and follow agreed upon standards. Those standards must be agreed upon and deemed as both meaningful and fair by both the company and its stakeholders.
Transparency reveals the “hidden truths,” including both recognized and unrecognized impacts that every company brings to a community. This includes, but is not limited to the impacts from operations, products and services that the company makes available as well as ancillary benefits from employees’ contributions to the community. In many cases, if not all, the community reaction regarding these issues can be anticipated, evaluated, planned, budgeted and communicated as part of the regular business process.
The need for transparency – being honest in both reporting the negative as well as the positive impacts – is critical to build community support for an enterprise. Being honest about issues prevent opposing groups and organizations from using that information to argue against the company. Companies demonstrate this kind of transparency without negative repercussions when they announce that they are not going to meet quarterly earnings, for example. This kind of reporting is expected and commonplace. Companies are also comfortable announcing production delays and problems. Negative news, when it is revealed willingly and explained, has a less damaging impact that when it is hidden.
When companies ask their stakeholders to accept targets for improvements in things such as emissions or accidents, it is important that they agree on what the overall targets are, and how they will be defined, measured and reported. It is not enough for a company to commit to poisoning a reduced percentage of the population each year.
In the next installment: Key 5: Maximize Stakeholder Engagement
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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.