Communication: The Missing Link Between Vision and Progress on Environment and Social Responsibility Priorities

One could be forgiven for taking a pessimistic outlook on our world, given the current state of our global household.

There’s no ignoring the impact of climate change on our world. We watch the news. We see reports of record-setting temperatures and other extreme weather events leading to the destruction of property and worse.

We’re faced with a tilted Supreme Court that rolled back decades of critical social justice, medical, and environmental protection. Our politics are paralyzed by inaction.  One political party seeks to strangle American democracy; the other is seemingly incapable of responding adequately to the magnitude of the danger facing government.

Surrounded by this kind of negativity, perhaps despair and hopelessness are reasonable reactions. How can we hope to effect positive change and confront the threats to our vision for a better future in this environment?  I’m here to tell you that there is reason for optimism.

Even though circumstances appear dire, we’re starting to see leadership from a rather unlikely hero: Corporate America. Many companies are pivoting their positioning on corporate purpose to champion solutions for the most pressing concerns we face. They define their mission in terms of profit, purpose and social impact.

As communications professionals, we’re the lynchpin that helps them construct a strategy and build campaigns that can move the needle in meaningful ways, and now more than ever it’s critical that we get it right.

Here are four ways we can do just that:

1. Be Genuine about Corporate Culture

Any effective communications strategy around protecting the environment and supporting social justice causes must demonstrate that the commitment is real – that it comes directly from the C-Suite and Board and is ingrained in the corporate culture. The effort is doomed from the start if senior leadership isn’t fully bought in.

We’re seeing that corporations are increasingly defining their brand around sustainability and promoting their commitment to the environment, corporate social responsibility, and making a positive difference in the world. They tout ESG metrics as evidence and for many organizations, it’s genuine and indicative of a culture shift from top to bottom. For others, however, they’re just trying to check a box because they feel pressure from the market or shareholders. That’s when companies get into trouble.

Stakeholders, both internal and external, tend to see through the rhetoric and recognize it has no substance—this is devastating for the health of an organization. If employees and customers don’t believe that senior leaders are invested and genuine in sustainability principles, they won’t embrace any initiatives that get rolled out.

The modern workforce increasingly sees these efforts as critical factors when choosing who to work for. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that 9 out of 10 American professionals surveyed across 26 industries would accept lower lifetime earnings in exchange for greater meaning at work. Gone are the days when salary was the only differentiator between prospective employers—meaningful action on social issues matters.

In fact, New York University’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business finds that good sustainability programs yield millions in benefits, both in financial and less concrete terms. Their Return on Sustainability Investment (ROSI) metric identifies nine drivers of financial performance that can improve with good sustainability strategies:

  • Innovation
  • Operational Efficiency
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Customer Loyalty
  • Risk Management
  • Employee Relations
  • Supplier Relations
  • Media Relations
  • Stakeholder Engagement

Notice anything about that list? It includes every aspect of business operations. Clearly, focusing on sustainability is no longer a “nice to have”; it’s a sound business strategy and a story worth telling.

2. Transparency and Candor

I learned early on that the first rule of good media and public relations is “never, ever lie”. Communications professionals must ensure that ESG reporting is transparent and candid and as the volume of companies doing this kind of reporting increases it only becomes more important.

There isn’t a standard set of metrics for ESG, so it can get confusing when companies report on progress differently. Regardless of the metrics, they must be clearly articulated and independently verifiable. Investors, consumers, competitors, and even the company’s employees will look at the report. Even more scrutiny gets leveled on publicly traded companies. Inaccurate or incomplete reporting can have serious consequences, both in the court of public opinion and at the hands of enforcement agencies like the SEC, particularly as they move to finalize formal disclosure rules.

I’ve heard arguments from some that don’t want to report ESG performance unless mandated for this very reason. While I understand that inclination, even a caveated and qualified report is better than nothing. Every company starts somewhere, and if you’re only looking at a few metrics in your first report, that’s perfectly acceptable. However, the same rules apply – be authentic. It can’t just be a marketing gimmick.

Another concern I hear is around negative legacy issues in an organization’s history. Maybe that’s a less-than-stellar record on environmental issues or problematic past hiring and promotion practices. The best policy is to acknowledge past sins and focus on the future.

As communicators, we can help organizations find the middle ground between risk-averse executives or lawyers (speaking as an attorney who has served in both State and Federal government positions) who might be hesitant to say anything at all and marketers whose enthusiasm to convert sales might lead them to overstate the company’s action. We can help develop messaging to show how corporations have turned the corner and embraced a business philosophy and culture centered on doing good.

3. Finding the Right Message and Messenger

It’s not enough to have a compelling narrative. The person delivering the message needs to be equally attention-grabbing. Recent efforts to change behavior in response to the global pandemic and climate change are instructive on this point.

First, on climate change:

A study out of Great Britain looked at public engagement on climate change post-Brexit, focusing on those who identified themselves as being right-of-center politically. Participants appreciated an upbeat, positive tone around a clean energy future, but they didn’t respond well to absolutes: “we can have a 100% clean energy future”, for example. Messaging that indicated the need for a dramatic behavior change was more challenging for them to embrace.

The core values of the focus group included a sense of fairness, protecting their families, helping others, and living a good life. Messaging consistent with those values was more likely to be well-received.

This is true of most people across the political and ideological spectrum. They’re not as likely to embrace action to address climate change if they’re told they must give up their ICE cars entirely. They’re more likely to respond when given options: drive a more fuel-efficient or electric vehicle. They’ll take action to prevent illness in their children stemming from carbon emissions, but don’t mobilize based on academic discussions and data around rising temperatures and the polar ice caps.

Second, on the pandemic:

During the early stages of the pandemic, we heard from politicians, media personalities, and scientists. Most of them white men. They were disseminating highly scientific and granular data combined with doom and gloom warnings on the dangers of the virus and the need for social isolation and vaccination. Vaccination rates stayed well below 50% and COVID rates continued to rise.

We changed our messengers and got different results, recognizing that not all audiences respond to the same message in the same way. We began to tailor messaging to the audience and deliver it through messengers they connected with. Professional athletes, country music stars, clergy, and social media influencers did their part to communicate with people who listened to them. The result was progress. The lesson is that we can win over even the most skeptical listener with positivity and respect instead of domineering and demeaning.

4. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

To borrow a phrase from Nike, “Just Do It.”

Talk is cheap. To see real positive change requires action, one company at a time, one community at a time. Action is contagious. When one organization starts making an impact, others tend to follow. Those who act get the best talent to join, develop innovative products, attract the most desirable investors, and achieve the best financial results. Just getting started towards making a difference can inspire others to follow and when they do, we can change the world: save the planet, champion diversity, and achieve social justice.

As Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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Bob Martineau, JDhttp://finnpartners.com
Bob Martineau, J.D. is a Senior Partner at Finn Partners, focusing on Purpose and Social Impact - Environment. He has spent more than 30 years in the environmental and public health arena representing clients in the health care, manufacturing, and energy sectors. He is a former Federal and State official in environmental affairs and recently a Commissioner of a state agency supervising environmental and energy programs and 56 state parks.
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