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3 principles for weaving sustainability into communications

Try consistent, repetitive and strategic messaging instead of a "one and done" tactic.

It’s a basic truth — we tend to see what’s right in front of us. We’re more likely to eat that chocolate chip cookie when it’s sitting on the counter rather than hidden in the pantry. Chances are slim that Human Resources will offer an interview if you never submit your resume. And you probably didn’t plan to spend $4.50 educating yourself about Brangelina’s divorce before you got bored in line at the grocery checkout.

So when companies launch an online sustainability report, why assume stakeholders will find it? Many reporters fall into this trap of the "one and done" approach. They post a link on the subpage of a subpage, send a press release, then wait until next year. 

Instead, the most successful companies take a blended, more assertive approach, making it as easy as possible for stakeholders to learn about sustainability progress. A 2012 article on stakeholder perceptions from the California Management Review stated:

Executives who rely on the standalone sustainability report to communicate their message are unlikely to succeed in delivering that message to any mainstream audience. However, sustainability-related messages can be embedded in virtually any media. Those firms that have been able to create meaningful distinctions in their audience’s perceptions of sustainability are, in part, doing so through the use of media and tactics incremental to their formal reports.

In other words, sustainability leaders go "beyond reporting" by using more than traditional print and web mediums to communicate performance. The best follow three key principles: Be consistent; be repetitive; and be strategic.

So when companies launch an online sustainability report, why assume stakeholders will find it?

1. Be consistent

When you commit to reporting your social, environmental, and governance performance, call it one thing. Labeling initiatives as "corporate responsibility" on your website while highlighting "citizenship" goals in a press release creates confusion. In the absence of formal reporting requirements, stakeholders (especially investors) seek clarity. Communicating with precision shows your audience that sustainability is a deliberate, well-defined and central component of your corporate identity.

Unilever is particularly adept at this. From the moment readers land on its corporate site, they see how Sustainable Living is embedded in the company’s vision. Upon clicking to secondary pages, they read about Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and targets to improve environmental and social impact.

Later, they notice that the company’s Twitter bio describes making sustainable living commonplace. And after several interactions, Unilever successfully has solidified its position as a "sustainable brand."

So how should you label your program? Do what makes sense for your business. If you’re consumer-facing, consider Unilever’s approach of designing a custom brand identity. For B2B companies, it may be more practical to select a standard term such as "corporate responsibility" and employ it across all communication channels.

According to a 2013 survey (PDF) by KMPG, nearly half of companies choose "sustainability."

2. Be repetitive

Once you’ve polished your messaging, use it. Marketing professionals use "touch points," or interactions between a business and its customers, to motivate purchasing decisions. Sustainability reporters can draw on this idea, connecting with stakeholders across multiple platforms and enabling them to associate your brand with ethics, responsibility and positive impact.  

The tools for this are readily available, and someone in your company likely already uses them. Reporters can team up with corporate communications to embed sustainability across multiple mediums. These companies do it well:

  • General Motors shares content about its environmental, innovation and community initiatives on its corporate Twitter account
  • Reynolds American highlights sustainability directly on its home page and places "Transforming Tobacco" in the main navigation
  • Southwire uses one-page snapshots (PDF) of sustainability progress as a sales tool
  • Hewlett-Packard weaves sustainability-related blogs and press releases into its online newsroom
  • BASF places sustainability on the front page of its investor relations site along with a "Sustainable Investments" section including goals, material topics and KPIs

At its core, managing sustainability performance is no different from planning for the long-term financial success of your business.

Be careful to be precise. Stakeholders easily become confused when companies include information in multiple places — such as philanthropy performance on both the About Us and Corporate Responsibility webpages. While messaging can occur across several platforms, formal disclosure should not.

The Global Reporting Initiative recommends that at least one medium (paper or electronic) provides users a full set of information about sustainability progress. Often, the best approach is to disclose performance in one central location — such as a sustainability website — then link to it from all other communication efforts.  

3. Be strategic

As the boundary between sustainability and corporate reporting continues to blur, many companies are re-evaluating their approach. Should we be communicating more than once per year? What frameworks should we use? Isn’t sustainability strategy simply business strategy?

One thing is for certain: At its core, managing sustainability performance is no different from planning for the long-term financial success of your business. In coming years, the space between these concepts will continue to narrow.

According to Mike Kzrus, a senior advisor working with us at BrownFlynn, "The way reporters frame these issues leads to an evolution of the business approach where sustainability is included in high-level strategy."

Take quarterly earnings calls. While these conversations typically focus on short-term profitability, companies can be proactive by integrating sustainability messages into performance updates. A 2013 Harvard Business School report, "A Tale of Two Stories," calls this "turning two stories into one."

The authors note that companies often tell one story in their sustainability report yet do not share the same narrative in investor communications. As long as companies fail to communicate consistently across these mediums, "the market will remain skeptical about the importance of sustainability."

Companies with effective communications don’t separate sustainability and financial messages. They consider sustainability as central to their business, and reflect this in messaging that is consistent, repetitive and strategic. Curators at the Louvre don’t place the Mona Lisa in a storage vault and expect visitors to find it — they display it front and center in the gallery. So, place sustainability front and center. It’s that simple.

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