Sustainability and Communication: Never let others control your story!

As elegantly spoken about by Chris Jarvis on this site, companies are continuing to discover that the Social Network is, beyond a decent movie, an effective way to improve visibility in the crowded marketplace.  Particularly in the last eighteen month blogs have been written, apps built, tweets tweeted and facebook pages “liked” at an astonishing rate.  But there is a dark side.  As the communication channels became further distributed so too does control of the messaging.

The inaccurately reported demise of Morgan Freeman on Twitter in December, 2010 may not have been of great concern to businesses except CNN, who was wrongly credited as the source and forced to announce his continued ‘alive-ness’.  But similarly erroneous stories about a company or a product can cast a funereal gloom on hard-earned reputations and brand value.

Case in point.  The website of one of the most internationally known and respected science communications companies ran an article that recommended that people not eat certain tropical fruits because of the large carbon footprint they amass during importation.  The article proved influential and was linked to and quoted widely across the blogosphere accompanied by comments about how people were going to change their buying behaviours in light of these findings.  The only trouble was that the article was wrong.  The sources referenced in the article provided data that wasn’t transferable to all of the products in question.  Compounding the use of the wrong data set, the author made a significant mathematical error that took bad numbers and made them worse.

What would you do if that article was about your brand?

If credible science journalism (or a website, a tweet, or a Facebook post) were to publish disparaging information about the environmental and social impacts of your company and products, how would you respond?

If you had readily available data (e.g. reliable metrics, carbon footprint measurements, life cycle analysis for your products/services) that disproved the disparaging information about your company, then you could respond immediately and forcefully.  However, most organizations don’t have this data at the ready and thus the initial response of most organizations is a non-response. Without your own data that disproves the disparaging information, it is difficult to take back control of the story.  Difficult but not impossible.

You will have to conduct a sustainability assessment, ideally involving a credible third-party, to accurately measure and document the environmental and social impacts, both positive and negative, of your product/service.  With this data in hand you will be able to substantively dispute any erroneous information about your business and even require its removal from the offending website(s).  Additionally, you will find yourself ideally positioned to communicate effectively with your customers about what may prove to be a compelling sustainability story.

In this age of quick, bad and incomplete data (which the Internet can dress up to look a lot like fact) it becomes a vital business asset to own the most rigorous data about your company and products, particularly your environmental and social performance.  It can be used reactively as damage control or, more effectively, as part of a proactive communications strategy that keeps control of your story – even within the wilds of the social network.  It is the single best strategy to make sure that the tools, and the people that use them, which were reporting the untimely demise of Morgan Freeman, don’t next prematurely bury your business.

Kenton Harmer is a Managing Partner of Common Fields.
Common Fields works with agriculture-dependent businesses
to measure, report and improve sustainability performance.