Communicating sustainability doesn't have to be complicated… if a few rules are followed.

Communicating a company’s environmental and social performance to stakeholders in an authentic, transparent manner is now an essential component to recruiting and retaining employees, ensuring customer loyalty, and reducing reputational risks. In some cases, public companies now produce an integrated report that combines their annual and sustainability data into one publication; a feat in and of itself. Communicating sustainability is important and is encouraged for business of any size. But should it be as complex as the subject matter?

While an increasing number of Canadian companies now publish information about corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability performance, the tasks related to producing an annual report are typically onerous. If many large corporate entities find CSR reporting taxing, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have at times an even bigger hurdle to overcome. Whether internal or externally sourced, when it comes to sustainability reporting – in whatever form – both the content and method are key to achieving value from the exercise. It also means refraining from using the same approaches used in marketing. Communicating sustainability is indeed about telling a story, but it is also part and parcel of business operation, risk management and customer relations.

The key is keeping it simple and honest

Some rules about effective communication remain the same, no matter the subject. CSR communications should be clear, concise and genuine. While communicating a company’s CSR information seems like a simple thing to do, it is often complicated by the very nature of the subject. Reducing environmental harm is a win with any stakeholder, but often the solutions are not easily attained, leading to potential challenges at the implementation stage. When communicating achievements, don’t forget about the barriers (if any), and lessons learned. The exercise is not just about relaying the good information, but also what it takes to operate a business with a lighter environmental and societal footprint, while increasingly contributing to the communities it impacts

Part of keeping things simple is to know who your audience is. A single communication piece cannot be everything to everyone. If a company wishes to engage on its environmental and social performance, it needs to do so in a way that best fits the audience. For example, retail customers are less likely to pick up a 30-page CSR report that includes the company’s financials; regulatory and voluntary compliance, and so on. They may be better engaged through simple, in-store displays such as infographics; web videos and interactive stories. On the other hand, investors, analysts and NGOs, may be interested in having the information aligned according to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) indicators.

Think about what the company would like to share: for whom it is designed, and the best ways of communicating that information. This must all be done while keeping the story straightforward and sincere.

Going back to basics: the five “Ws”

In an aim to remove the complications of communicating about sustainability, we can often use traditional communication frameworks such as the five Ws: Why, What, Who, When and Where. Employing a simple approach to breaking down the information can be helpful in both mapping the content (what the company would like to communicate) and identifying gaps (is the company implementing plans that align with the logic behind its sustainability initiatives?)

Why do we do it? Asking why may be the most difficult question for some businesses. The immediate response tends to be an overarching “feel good” statement; like “help the earth”, or “reduce the burden on future generations.” While an altruistic reason may hold true, the reader can also misconstrue these statements as “greenwashing”. Instead, consider linking the “why” with the business case. Does lowering a company’s carbon footprint link to reduced future regulatory liabilities? Perhaps it is about increasing energy and water efficiencies? It can also relate to operating in a way that makes employees feel better about working for a more responsible business. Likewise, the “why we do it” can be told from a personal vantage point – such as individual values held by the owner or president – as long as it is communicated honestly.

What are we doing? Include the company’s environmental and social achievements. Ideally, the work is aligned with a set of goals and targets. Some businesses may choose to use this “what” exercise to help identify gaps: do the company’s actions align with why things are done? What else is currently not being done, but can be included as a future goal?

Who is responsible? Straightforward, but not always included in CSR communications is a description of the person or group of people accountable to the “what”. Communicating roles and responsibilities is essential in relaying the implementation of sustainability initiatives. In addition, including the staff responsible for one or more environmental and social initiatives lends creditability and accountability to the story, and can act as an internal motivator among employees.

When and Where? Finally, include details that tie together the “what” and “who” of the company’s sustainability initiative(s). If communicated to an external audience, consider having those responsible for executing a campaign or project share their experience. This can be done with a short story or a quote. Depending on the initiative, having a different “voice” in the piece provides additional interest and better engages the reader.

For internal communications purposes, remember the “so what, now what?” factor that is included whenever there is a message that requires a reaction and action. In other words, connecting the information with specific next steps: seeking feedback, volunteers or behaviour change. These are examples of tactics that can be employed to help set context while empowering the reader to have a say and/or act upon the information shared.

Final thought…

While corporate sustainability is not in itself an exercise in communication, without an effective method to relay information about the work done, very few internal or external stakeholders would be able to engage. Just like successful grassroots campaigns, remember the power of providing the bigger picture – why do we do what we do – along with tangible actions via solutions or answers. The more meaningful the content and the clearer the method of delivery, the greater the value of a communication piece to the company and its stakeholders.

Posted on: July 14th, 2013 by

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