3 steps to effective communication about sustainability

Sustainability. It's a complicated business transforming industry to take this concept on board, and as executives gradually formulate a response to its challenges, they've stumbled across a new problem: communication.

About more than just a simple transition from CSR reporting -- a superficial image polishing exercise -- sustainability brings with it its own language and definitions, ones that communications professionals must be fluent in. If not, any messages are likely to be buried underneath the mountain of words heading in the direction of stakeholders.

So with sustainable communications sitting high up on the agenda, execs now face a new dilemma: How to avoid underselling the strategic importance of sustainability initiatives to an audience that is already disillusioned by green marketing campaigns?

And that's not the only obstacle to an effective sustainability communications strategy. Speaking to industry experts from 18 firms -- including Ceres, Edelman, IBM and Toyota -- we found that executives face common problems, regardless of the sector they operate in. And these problems act as barriers to the development of sustainability communications. Our report, Verdantix Best Practices In Sustainable Communications, pinpoints these problems, and has some solutions at hand.

Solving Problem 1: Knowledge gap.

Sustainability professionals are great at their jobs, they just struggle to communicate the technical side of their work to external audiences, while communications professionals often don't get the underlying principals of what's being done. The solution? To bridge the gap, sustainability teams should spend time educating communications. But they can't stay in the lead, and must be ready to step back once communications professionals are fully aware of the resources at their disposal. The comms [the communications pros] can then take over, tailoring issues, language and depth of information to individual audiences.

Solving Problem 2: Diverse definitions

With different departments -- and even individuals -- harboring their own idea of what sustainability means there's a risk that the firm's global strategy will be overlooked, or even worse, misrepresented. The answer? First up, firms must overcome turf wars as any discrepancies will relay redundant messages -- comms don't want sustainability experts treading on their toes, and vice versa. Instead, both divisions should work from a common definition of sustainability, one that matches the firm's business strategy. Starbucks has already done this, embedding its key message: That it's an ethical choice, in every stage of the supply chain, starting with its Coffee and Farmer Equity policies and continuing into stores.

Solving Problem 3: Inconsistencies hold back consumer engagement

Every business function has its own information requirements, so how to match these individual messages into a coherent story that works for all? The answer is integration, building consistent campaigns that engage stakeholders. Take Timberland's Earthkeepers program as an example. This builds a strong bond with consumers over shared values, not just product features. Beyond the usual channels, communications professionals should also tap into resources such as the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index to endorse their firm's performance and blend these into the media plan. Carefully selected facts and figures -- not reams of data -- are a very useful tool to back up sustainability statements.

Now that business is finally getting serious about sustainability, it's time for communications professionals to play their part. Consistently weaving sustainability messages into every communications stream will subtly, but convincingly, demonstrate that the firm is serious about sustainability, while a glitzy short-term campaign leaves audiences wondering if the firm is still pursuing its sustainability agenda later in the year.

And while those firms with little to boast about may prefer to keep quiet, our research finds that self-censorship risks damaging the brand. So you're a late adaptor of sustainability? Better to admit to that publicly than keeping silent and gaining a reputation for doing nothing at all.

As sustainability infiltrates business, it's crucial that communications professionals are equipped to overcome these common problems so that they can do their job: Effectively convey what progress a firm is making in the sustainability arena to each and every stakeholder.

The full report, Best Practices For Sustainability Communications, is available to Verdantix clients to download at www.verdantix.com.