In Sustainability PR becomes Proof Relations

In an era when corporate trust remains depressingly and perhaps deservedly low, one clear strategy for speaking effectively and substantively with key stakeholders is sustainability communications – a practice of positive change management and brand improvements.

For public relations practitioners, sustainability can be a launch pad for more substantive roles in companies and with clients – elevating traditional PR functions and profile development and putting the brand expert squarely in areas of C-suite-level operational change and long-term risk management.

Sustainability makes issues-focused PR a pivot in business management innovation — using the filter of sustainability and its brand-boosting powers to transform and improve margins and mitigate the negative impacts of corporate behavior on the community and planet. Let’s see a press release do that.

And unlike other PR campaigns in which you might be begging for evidence that there is substance to the claims, “prove it” is a basic mantra of sustainability communications.

Here’s an overview of the emerging practice:

What is sustainability?

The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need” in the 1987 report called Our Common Future.

As a business reality, the Harvard Business Review, in May 2010, called sustainability a megatrend akin to globalization and the rise of the information society. Authors David Lubin and Daniel Esty say that escalating public and governmental concern about climate change, among other issues, has encroached on businesses’ capacity to create value for stakeholders.

The benefits are compelling. Sustainable business fosters new business development (for example, government contracts and RFPs are increasingly demanding evidence of sustainability commitments), product and service innovation, process efficiencies and competitive advantage. Other plusses include cost containment, reduced exposure to legislation, attracting and retaining talent, supply chain management and, relevant to this discussion, brand and reputation improvements.

“Sustainability comes from the perfect storm of diminishing resources, climate change, global inequality and accelerating development,” says Peter ter Weeme, president of Vancouver-based and globally active sustainability consulting firm Junxion Strategy. “It’s more than being green. Sustainability captures whole sets of values, issues and processes that a company must address to ensure delivery of environmental, social and economic objectives. “

According to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, companies focused on sustainability outperformed their peers by 15% during the 2009 financial crisis.

The PR opportunity

At a minimum, sustainability communications points to very real stakeholder engagement strategies through authentic, verifiable and reported good corporate deeds designed to improve the health of the profits, people and the planet – the oft-quoted “Triple P” or Triple Bottom Line that addresses social, environmental and economic needs. You can also add corporate citizenship and corporate responsibility to the various terms that diffuse the scope of the practice today.

One area of mystery in sustainability, still, is return on investment – a debate not lost on long-time PR practitioners.

Yet, because communicating sustainability vision, commitment and activities is a priority in sustainability, PR is uniquely positioned to help drive sustainability change, with the eye on the prize of building reputation. Reporting results against established frameworks, which is explored below, is required to do sustainability right, so why not maximize it with PR oversight?

A savvy PR pro is going to know how to manage brand in regulatory and cultural change environments and work with the technicians and CEOs, alike, to build substantive, defensible strategic communications programs that meet the goals of regulators, stakeholders and companies/clients.

US slower to catch on
Despite the lack of a federal Climate Change bill in the US, the US market is starting to pick up the pace – with a ways to go to catch up with other jurisdictions.

“Sustainability practices in Europe – especially the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia – are continuing to raise regulatory standards and public expectations,” says Peter ter Weeme. “Smart American companies look there for best practices.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission has mandated that the impacts of climate change are worthy of disclosure to shareholders. The Environmental Protection Agency  has deemed carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, as a poison that can be regulated. Huge brands like Wal-Mart have vendors in their supply chains scrambling to meet criteria of sustainability indices – and keep the business.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission  is due with a set of marketing guidelines that, we hope, will do away with the scourge of greenwashing – marketing green when no proof of effectiveness or benefit exists or can be verified.

“Many companies are now realizing that their efforts and achievements in the field of sustainability need to be communicated more effectively,” says Graham Sprigg, managing director of UK-based IMS Consulting. “What began as a PR exercise to help differentiate their brand has become far more deep-rooted. Effective communication of the evidence of activity in CSR and sustainability is becoming central to a company’s license to operate.”

Three pillars of sustainability communications

A basic outline of priorities of sustainability communications includes:

  1. Building a sustainability culture: Sustainability consultants speak of “capacity building” – making sustainability a corporate “value” versus “goal” by creating the systems to support substantive change. Employees leverage messaging about commitments and achievements. Contemporary best practices, meanwhile, show that companies that succeed with sustainability have active CEOs as champions for the cause.  
  2. Data, verification and reporting: Sustainability communications’ backbone comes from reporting against standards and frameworks – and defending the results. By far, the Global Reporting Initiative, launched in 2000, is the go-to source for reporting. Other frameworks include The UN Global Compact, ISO 26000, The Natural Step and the newest group Stewardship Action Council.
  3. Stakeholder engagement: A lynchpin of sustainability communications is understanding and engaging the needs of key stakeholders, with consultation and meaningful two-communication evidence itself of a sustainability commitment.

Embrace “iterative change”

When I talk to clients about sustainability communications, I speak about iterative change. This is the incremental progress made fulfilling a publicly stated commitment to sustainability. At this stage of the game, sharing the transition with stakeholders is a meaty PR platform.

Set a vision. Set a timeline – a year, maybe a decade. Set targets – near- and long-term. Act on the vision and execute the sustainability strategy. Measure against baselines. Analyze successes and failures. Show the improvement or the refinements. Report against an established framework annually. Do it all again.

At each step, there is a PR opportunity to talk to key stakeholders. “We made it!” Or, “We didn’t make it, but we are further ahead.”

The transparency and authenticity of sustainability communications begin to imbue the brand with a sense of progress, determination, and good intentions – which are aiding in a global solution to managing our collective future.


Ian Edwards is Executive Vice President Sustainable Communications Consulting at Arcadia in New York.