5 steps to turn your public policy team into a sustainability ally

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Journalists, and the public, are increasingly scrutinizing how company political spending aligns  with a company’s stated values. 

In the past several years, publicly traded companies increasingly have taken very public positions on sustainability issues. One of the most prominent examples of massive action has been in the climate space, where the We Mean Business coalition mobilized in the run-up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, and where we’ve since seen hundreds of companies make plain that they are "still in" on the climate, regardless of the U.S. government position. This activism hasn’t been limited to environmental issues, though: Last year, we saw CEOs from a range of companies stand up against immigration bans and transgender bans, and companies committed to women’s empowerment through efforts such as Planned Parenthood’s Business for Birth Control initiative.

At BSR, in our recent report, Redefining Sustainable Business: Management for a Rapidly Changing World, we assert that "influence" is an increasingly important component of creating and executing a resilient business strategy. Moreover, to be effective in helping your companies be fit for the future, sustainability professionals increasingly will need to act as coalition-builders and change agents, both inside and outside your organizations. This means that your colleagues in government affairs can be critical allies in advancing your sustainability agenda. 

That said, your government affairs colleagues also can take policy positions that undermine the sustainability agenda and leave your company open to charges of mixed messaging or hypocrisy. It was not so long ago (2012) that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable — major U.S. business associations — filed a lawsuit against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over the final conflict minerals rule in Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which sought to increase supply chain sustainability and transparency and reduce armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding areas.

Companies, many of which were and remain involved in industry initiatives to support conflict-free sourcing of tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold (the minerals covered by the legislation), were called out for the mixed industry response to the regulation and asked in no uncertain terms to clarify their positions.

One way to prevent these conflicts is to ensure that public positions and private approaches (including through trade associations) are consistent. The CPA-Zicklin Index (PDF), which measures this annually, stresses that journalists are increasingly scrutinizing company political spending and how it aligns — or conflicts — with a company’s publicly stated values, policies and positions. 

So how can you lobby your lobbyists? Here are five key steps you can take to better collaborate with your public policy team:

  1. Understand your company’s public policy priorities. As a senior executive in a telecoms company pointed out in our recent work, "We are dealing with a million complex issues with governments: tax, licenses, spectrum, privacy, electromagnetic frequencies." Whoever you’re working with inside your company, it’s important for you to understand their priorities, and specifically the relationship between these priorities and the future of the business. The government affairs team is no exception; take time to understand what the issues are that are keeping them awake at night, so that you can find ways that sustainability can help them accomplish their goals.
  2. Collaborate to understand the ways in which political and social risk are converging. In the developed world, demographic shifts and the specter of automation are starting to put social services under unmanageable pressure. Elsewhere, a growing, aspirational middle class is increasingly dissatisfied with self-interested, inefficient governments bungling health care, education and economic opportunity. As protestors coalesce around these issues — and governments struggle to respond — businesses are likely to find themselves pulled in, particularly when politicians target them to curry favor with their constituents. Your company may find it extremely challenging to respond effectively to these topics without close cross-functional collaboration, and your external communications should be informed by a deep understanding of your social license to operate. You can be an asset to your colleagues by gathering and sharing intelligence on both how key stakeholders see the company and on other factors that might amplify these risks.
  3. Learn from your peers. Government affairs is the department in your company whose explicit mandate is to build coalitions and create systems change, so seek out opportunities to learn from your colleagues. Identify mentors with policy advocacy experience and ask to tag along to internal or external meetings to watch them work their magic. Influence is a skill, and you likely have expert influencers working just down the hall from you. Reach out to them.
  4. Identify opportunities to use sustainability to help advance your policy agenda. Your government affairs team almost certainly would welcome stories of positive impact that they can leverage in the cities, states, countries and international fora where they are working to shape policy, and they even may be interested in co-creating programs with you. Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative is one example of what this can look like: It is a strategic sustainability program housed within the company’s government affairs department that brings advanced wireless technology to underserved communities globally. It has affected over 10 million beneficiaries in 47 countries over the past 10 years. (Full disclosure: I managed Wireless Reach programs at Qualcomm from 2015 to 2017.)
  5. Enlist them in internal advocacy efforts. Your public policy team’s experience navigating external systems and bureaucracies can be invaluable in helping you navigate your company’s inner workings and politics. Whether you’re working to get your 2030 sustainability goals approved or to create a new program to advance your work on a material issue, consider asking your government affairs team for their advice on obtaining the necessary internal approvals and buy-in.

Ultimately, sustainability and government affairs are working toward the same objective: the long-term viability of your organization. By collaborating more effectively with them to make sure your advocacy agenda reflects your full value chain, you can make your company’s sustainability program more sustainable — and you might even learn a thing or two.

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