How integrated communications supports sustainability
Aligning your communications will help your sustainability ambitions make real progress
‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
In politics, business and even novels, this phrase is frequently quoted. Whilst its origin may be debated, the phrase fulfils a recognition among us that collaboration is a good and necessary thing if we want to achieve long term success. If you agree that long term success can be defined by a sustainable future, it’s unsurprising that the phrase has been quoted in sustainability contexts too.
Sustainability is often referred to as a journey. Because, it really is. Whether we like it or not, the world is not stopping still — we are forced to move forward through time, and we know now, that our actions today have direct and immense consequences for the future survival of humankind and other species on this planet.
Working together is recognised as a positive, indeed necessary, approach — with different companies and organisations, and even within and between industry sectors. The growth of multi-party coalitions such as We Mean Business, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Hong Kong’s Drink without Waste are evidence of this as well as of course, the 17th Sustainable Development Goal being Partnerships for the Goals.
Collaboration is not just external facing. Working across business units and teams within organisations is essential. It is no longer sufficient to a have a single team, sat aside from core business, who ‘do good things and coordinate philanthropic endeavours’ on behalf of the organisation while the rest of the company carries on regardless. It’s clear that this just doesn’t add up if you want your business to be strategic. Sustainability can only truly help future-proof your business when you embed it deep into your core business strategy and give it the platform to permeate throughout all your operations.
And the same is true for your communications.
Resourcing independent efforts for a myriad of communication platforms just doesn’t make sense. Whether it’s a C-suite speech, an investor presentation, staff briefing, marketing campaign or your corporate LinkedIn page — all should be aligned to make sure your communications investment is reaching its objectives in the most effective and efficient manner. And crucially, when it comes to sustainability, failure to organise, prioritise and align your communications can undermine the authenticity of the message you are trying to convey.
So, point 1. Share one story.
Your audiences (or ‘stakeholder groups’ in common sustainability parlance) are fluid, with people moving in and out of them during the course of their day. If your investor hears one message at a briefing but she sees another, perhaps even contradictory, message in an advertisement, at best you have confused your audience. At worst your message is seen as inauthentic and the trust in your organisation is diminished.
How do you tell one story? This is where a robust, communications structure comes in with an over-arching message and a framework for your strategic priorities. A hierarchy helps organise your communications in a way that provides the necessary context for people to quickly, clearly and fully understand your messages. All the relevant communications functions in your organisation need to be represented in this key document, including media relations, internal communications, marketing, public affairs, website, social media etc.
The people that you are wanting to communicate with need to be at the heart of your thinking. Be clear on your objective — what you want people to know, do or feel; consider the channels, messages and assets that are needed to make this happen and how you will measure success over time.
‘What’s different about the world today is that, in the past, you could have a different message for investors, people who cared about the environment or your employees,’ reflected Jeff Harmening, chairman of the Board and CEO of General Mills, at a recent conference, ‘Today, the message has to be clear and be the same.’
The exercise of preparing an integrated communications plan can often serve to build clarity and understanding of your sustainability strategy. As people reflect and deliberate on the meaning of your sustainability ambitions and activities, and consider what these mean for different audiences — the impact of your strategy will likely gain strength and momentum.
2. Share the whole story.
The world clearly doesn’t have all the answers and actions in place right now for a sustainable future, yet the appetite to understanding what businesses are doing is demonstrated by a rise in investor interest and a growth in the sophistication and extent of ESG reporting.
Your communications should demonstrate intent, extent and progress. Considering again, the principles that sustainability is a journey, and that trust is key to successful sustainability communications, it is essential that the work — not just completed results — are shared. The temptation to remain silent on a subject until the result is delivered, gift-wrapped with sparkles, will not help build trust. ‘Candor, honesty and transparency are all powerful trust-building elements’ reported the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer. And importantly for sustainability, transparency supports the much need collaboration that the world needs to succeed.
This may feel uncomfortable for some, but it is crucial. Your message should outline the intended direction of travel, and regular communications should demonstrate the actions that you are taking to support this journey. Remember, it’s absolutely ok to take small steps.
Your communications also need to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges that your business is facing. The sustainability challenges in the world are complex and no one has THE answer. By sharing the intent, extent and progress of your strategy, you give context to the challenges and can communicate your approach, on your terms, and sharing will help secure the trust and momentum you need to pursue your sustainability goals. As the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) notes, ‘increased transparency leads to better decision making, which helps build and maintain trust in businesses and governments.’
3. Show don’t tell.
Your communications should demonstrate the world that you want to live and work in. Too often, communications lose impact because their context or content is misaligned to their message.
Examples such as promoting a ‘save energy’ message on a massive digital screen outdoors, having an all-male panel talk about gender diversity and building ‘green walls’ out of plastic plants, are sadly all real and all serve to undermine the sustainability message that the organisations were trying to convey.
‘Show don’t tell’ is particularly true with images. If you have a strategy to reduce single-use plastic, populate your image library with pictures that show people with re-useable water bottles, glasses and crockery, rather than the single-use plastic water bottles or coffee cups you are trying to avoid. If a picture paints a thousand words, then make sure you use images (and resources and time) wisely and focus on what you do what people to do. Equally as powerful, your imagery has a huge opportunity to reinforce the positive future you are working for — whether that be wind turbines on a horizon, or gender parity in the workforce, every editorial decision you make demonstrates intent. Organisations like the Conscious Advertising Network provide guidance for advertisers and agencies on how to consciously change the way they operate and the content they produce, for better communications.
The environmental and social challenges that the world is facing need collaboration on an unprecedented scale if we are to secure a sustainable future. Committing to an integrated approach to your sustainability communications will strengthen your strategy and its delivery — and this work is too important to not give it every tool in the box.