For a growing number of organizations, sustainability has come to encompass a range of issues that extend beyond environmental stewardship – from social justice to ethical sourcing. But if your company is crafting a communication strategy in support of a new or existing sustainability initiative, PR expert Gregg LaBar has this advice: “It’s OK to start with ‘green.’”
“Sustainability is not just green. But from a communication standpoint, I think it’s OK to start there,” explained LaBar, who is senior vice president of the Cleveland-based business communication firm Dix & Eaton. If you try to introduce sustainability to internal or external stakeholders by explaining that it’s about a range of social, economic and environmental concerns, LaBar continued, “you run the risk of people saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that. That sounds really complicated.’”
During a Feb. 11 workshop that highlighted best practices for communicating and reporting corporate sustainability initiatives, LaBar said the first step in developing a communication strategy is to define sustainability within your organization – to help people understand what it is and what it isn’t. As an example, he quoted a popular definition from the Brundtland Commission’s report to the United Nations in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
“Something as simple as that to educate folks in your organization can be very powerful,” LaBar said.
The next steps include determining your organization’s key stakeholder groups and their interests, and taking inventory of your current sustainability-related activities and communication efforts.
“There’s probably not a company in the U.S. that’s not doing something that could be put under this umbrella [of sustainability],” LaBar said. “What we hear a lot is, ‘Nobody knows what anybody’s doing.’”
Taking stock of your company’s current sustainability work doesn’t have to be complex, LaBar added. “It can be a spreadsheet. It can be a list. It can be index cards,” he explained. “And you just start to collect the stories and examples. It’s finding out what you’re already doing, what’s working and who’s involved. Finding a few true believers is very important, obviously.”
Other next steps include:
- Benchmarking – What are industry peers (and organizations outside your industry) doing in the area of sustainability, and how are they communicating their sustainability activities and performance?
- Conducting a SWOT analysis – Determine your organization’s strengths and weaknesses in the area of sustainability, as well as opportunities and threats.
- Finding your firm’s motivational lever – Some organizations are motivated by positives and opportunities, while others are more motivated by threats and challenges.
- Determining where you want to be – Does your firm aspire to be a thought leader and an innovator in the area of sustainability, or does it simply want to be reactive, waiting until it’s absolutely necessary to pursue sustainability initiatives (of does it want to be somewhere in the middle)?
What kind of a company should care about sustainability? LaBar tackled that question by referencing the influential book “Green to Gold,” noting that sustainability should be important to firms:
- That have household names in their product portfolio.
- Whose operations have a big environmental impact.
- That are dependent on natural resources.
- That have high exposure to regulations.
- That operate in competitive markets for talent.
- That have low market power (but aim to be major players).
- That have established social and environmental reputations, whether good or bad.
LaBar added one other potential driver: “If your organization is core-values driven.”
“If your organization talks about honesty, integrity, transparency, respect for people – that could be your hook,” LaBar said. “Instead of creating a new [sustainability communications] program, hook it to something that you’ve already spent time and money developing and promoting.”
LaBar asserted that the list of steps mentioned earlier is a good place to start, because “it’s a low-risk list.”
“You’re not doing anything that’s compromising your company or requiring a lot of resources,” he said. “This is good, solid, fundamental research, and understanding where you’re at.”