Telling a Sustainability Story? What to do and what NOT to do.

Everybody loves a list, right? Right.

Well, here’s mine – a 46-point manifesto-like checklist for anybody looking to communicate corporate sustainability. It’s not rocket science. But as the following pointers suggest, there’s every opportunity to get it wrong and a plethora of reasons to get it right.

1. Make it material

When it comes to creating content and communicating your story, the world is your oyster; sustainability is a broad church and there’s almost too much ground to cover. If it’s important to your business and customers, you should be talking about it. If it’s not important, you shouldn’t bother.

2. Do it frequently

Scheduling is crucial if you want to maintain regular levels of engagement. Just make sure you have something to say.

3. Don’t talk sustainability or environment

Think about people’s passion points. Don’t talk about energy efficiency – talk money savings. Don’t talk about embodied carbon – talk about healthy and productive buildings. Don’t talk about reuse and recycling – talk about innovative new products.

4. Be true to yourself

It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Allow your brand personality to shine through and be authentic. There is nothing worse than companies trying to be something they are quite clearly not.

5. Back up your claims with quantifiable data – and make sure it’s robust

Data is king.

6. Don’t lead with it, though …

…unless your core audience is made up of data geeks, rather use it as a key reference point to support your storytelling.

7. Use communications to feed into strategy

Don’t allow the communications process to be seen merely as a tool to tell stories. Ensure that the storytelling works hard to engage stakeholders, encourage feedback and extract audience insight that can be used to inform future strategy.

8. Start a conversation

ConversationThe ‘me-me-me’ monologue mentally is no longer fit-for-purpose. Use your content to find out what your audience thinks, feels, believes, perceives and knows about your corporate strategy – and open up a dialogue.

9. Make sure your content sings (we can help)

If your content is more Stevie Brookstein than Stevie Wonder, you’ve got problems. And we should talk.

10. Make it valuable – not comms for comms sake

The internet is awash with throwaway commentary on sustainability issues. Be better than that by creating something useful. Try data-led insight, practical case studies, hot tips, legislative analysis, etc.

11. Keep it simple

Carbon economics, value chain metrics, circularity, the planetisation of finance – none of this stuff is straightforward. Simplify everything. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” as the random sign above, spotted in a random office, once said.

12. Avoid jargon like the plague

And any mates you’ve garnered via simplification will quickly be lost if you start dithering with bombast, bluster and balderdash.

13. Develop a compelling narrative

As the brilliant Carolyn McMaster, from the Californian-based comms agency Thinkshift, says when talking about giving investors the right information with which to base their sustainable investments on: “It would be simplistic to say that a brand sustainability story alone will give investors the information they seek – there needs to be a ‘there there.’ But stories bring facts to life and make them memorable. They resonate in ways hard numbers don’t; a story connects the dots to the wider world as well as to the company’s own vision and goals.”

14. Be bold and creative

The world can’t afford for meek and passive communications around sustainability. If you want people to sit up, take notice and take action as a result of what you’re doing, it’s time to be adventurous, daring and heroic.

15. Talk about other people, companies, industries, geographies

Don’t be afraid to reference those individuals or organisations that you are inspired by and deserve wider acclaim. Some might be in other sectors. Some might be in other countries. Damn, some might even be your competitors! Yes, tread carefully, but be resolute in your acknowledgement of others that are leading the way.

16. Understand what and who your audience is

It’s a fundamental of good PR, communications and marketing: Know your audience. But with so many different competing messages to get out there, a reassessment of just who you are trying to reach, and why, could be a worthwhile exercise.

17. Be honest

Customers have grown up and are more knowledgeable about sustainability issues than you think. There really is no room for greenwash.

18. Shareholders are not your only stakeholders

By all means, talk to your investors. But don’t forget the other individuals that are just as important to your business. This especially applies to sustainability reporters, who quite often will ignore all but the money men in building out their narrative.

19. Choose the right content for the right audience

What works for engaging senior management via your internal newsletter might not work when trying to win hearts and minds across Twitter.

20. Speaking of Twitter, be careful with those hashtags

Here are some #TwitterFailures to learn from.

21. Don’t forget to communicate to your own people

Letting your own people know what you’re up to could be the most important piece of communication you’ll do all year. Build up a strong team of internal advocates and watch them do your work for you.

22. Map your content strategy to your business strategy

If you’re not talking about the risks, challenges and opportunities for your business, then – well, what are you talking about?

23. Don’t forget to cater for different languages and cultures

It sounds obvious, but ignoring your audiences from backgrounds is a common error.

24. The CSR manager isn’t the only person with something to say

HR, finance, procurement – these people all have something to say about sustainability. Use them and bring new voices into your communications – voices that will consider issues and challenges beyond the usual.

25. Loosen up

Yes, you want to maintain control over what goes out of the door. But don’t be too controlling. Be open to the ideas of others and learn to let go a little.

26. Nail your style and tone

Cut the bagginess and develop a tone of voice that resonates with audiences and aligns well with your brand.

27. Invest properly

Good storytelling costs money. It’s not something to be shoved under the nose of your latest intern. If you want to make a difference, invest in it properly.

28. Get help in understanding what your audience wants and needs

Social media is great for seeking customer insight. But there’s plenty of professional services you can use to help you garner proper insight into what your stakeholders want and need when it comes to sustainability communications. The 2degrees Stakeholder Dialogue service is worth checking out.

29. Make sure your story stacks up

If you’re a food and beverage company that claims that securing a sustainable supply of raw material is everything, your farmers had better be a part of your storytelling. If you’re a telecoms business which places customer service top of its strategic priority list, your customers had better be a part of your storytelling. You get the drift.

30. Don’t be afraid to talk about areas of weakness

I know many of you will find this so, so uncomfortable. But talking about your failures is a good thing. Just look at the goodwill being shown to Royal Bank of Scotland right now. It’s been dragged through the mud so much since 2008, but admitting that it messed up has won it many plaudits and rightly so.

31. Be brave

Same as No.14, but it needs repeating. Fortune favours the brave. And bold.

32. Get your board members involved

The senior management team are the ultimate advocates to have on your side. Get them involved in your content creation, keep them up to date on what you’re doing and make sure they feel connected to your storytelling.

33. Use Narrative Matters

narrative mattersYes, it’s a beautifully embedded piece of what I believe is known in the business as native advertising. Narrative Matters is my content creation agency. Having been writing about sustainable business issues for the last decade and helping companies effectively engage with audiences around the subject, I know what I’m talking about and can help you.

34. Don’t try to cover too many different stories in one piece of communication

Focus on one thing at a time and make it great rather than sending out a number of different messages that might confuse the picture

35. Don’t keep all of your best stories for your annual CSR report

It’s not as if anybody reads them, now is it?

36. Don’t bore us (get to the chorus)

Get to the point, quickly. There’s no room for the monotonous, mundane or tedious. (Having said that, what might bore some will excite others).

37. It’s all about personality, personality, personality

And personal perspective and insight. People deal with people, and are completely turned off by faceless corporate spiel.

38. Videos work …

As long as you make them short (sub-three minutes).

39. As does audio

Just look at the explosion of podcasting in recent years.

40. Everyone loves a good story

Just make people feel good about themselves, your organisation and the world around them.

41. Avoid doom and gloom

Central to this is to swerve the negatives. Your audience won’t appreciate a reminder of the huge challenges the world faces, or the compromises they might have to make to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Focus on the positives – the great big, exciting things that are happening that will put a smile on their faces.

42. Create to be consumed

Don’t just create content and communications for the sake of it. Once it’s out there, work it to the max – and make sure people consume, engage and react to it.

43. Track the impact of your work

Be clear about what you are trying to achieve and be sure to grab data that will give you insight into whether you’re messages are having the desired effect.

44. Steal from others

As the great filmmaker Jim Jarmusch says, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” However, be warned: “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

45. Track trends in the media

Understand what is working in your sector and what trends are currently resonating with your audiences. And tap into them, including jumping onto popular hashtags, for example.

46. But make sure it’s something material to your organisation

Which kind of takes us back to where we started with Tip No. 1. But start talking about things that don’t concern you (or connect with your audience), and you’ll just end up looking silly.

This article first appeared on the Narrative Matters blog on July 13, 2015.
Tom Idle 
is a writer, journalist, editor and commentator in the field of corporate sustainability, climate change policy, environmental protection, clean energy and corporate social responsibility.  He is Editor-in-chief at 2degrees network.