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Two Steps Forward

Surviving the real-world challenges of sustainability communications

From avoiding greenwashing to confronting haters and critics, there's no end of things to think about

Woman speaking through a megaphone, with the speaker portion covered with two bandaids

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

Corporate communications on sustainability issues has long been a sore spot, as I’ve written about multiple times. The questions are fundamental: Talk or not about your company’s commitments and achievements? Speak out in an era of political pushback on environmental, social and governance issues, or keep a low profile? Be accused of greenwashing or greenhushing?

That was the basis of our daylong GreenBiz Comms Summit back in February, which brought together communications, sustainability and legal professionals from inside large companies for a candid conversation about the challenges companies face when they communicate, internally or externally, on sustainability matters. The nearly 200 professionals participated in hands-on exercises, where small groups were asked to concoct messaging for several hypothetical companies, both B-to-B and B-to-C. It was, by all accounts, an engaging event.

Even the best-laid communications plan can attract criticism — sometimes more than if a company had said nothing at all.

We recently published a summary of what took place there, which I’m pleased to share, in particular the on-stage conversations as opposed to the more candid table-level work. The event was conducted under the Chatham House rule, meaning that no participants can be identified without permission.

Getting internal alignment

One session built on a column I wrote in August, about the "Bermuda Triangle" of sustainability messaging: communications; sustainability; and corporate counsel. Individually, each has a slightly different interest when creating press releases and media pitches. In concert, they often undermine a company’s messaging. Among the suggestions from a panel of experts:

Bring the players together early and often. Imagine reaching the end of a cross-functional, collaborative working group with external stakeholder input — and legal wants to frame the message differently, a sustainability expert says the language is imprecise, and comms is at a loss for how to tell a compelling story. That confounding situation can be prevented by inviting key internal stakeholders to the table much earlier than may seem necessary for the project. Try day one.

Integrate the expertise from each department and speak their language. Understand the subject matter and pain points of other stakeholders, and be hyper-transparent. Long before soliciting signoff from a subject matter expert, check and double-check the accuracy of a communication. Have resources and questions ready on an ongoing basis; don’t just spring a problem on someone during a meeting.

Have playbooks, guides and protocols ready. To disseminate an effective message, have all of your analysis and facts in order and be able to stand behind them in case there is a challenge. Prepare messaging playbooks, guides and protocols for your teammates to help them understand the whole picture involved in a messaging challenge.

Avoiding greenwash

The practice of making exaggerated or unverifiable claims about environmental benefits is widely frowned upon, but without a single definition for greenwashing, companies all too easily make missteps. Some takeaways:

Greenwashing charges are up. Although it’s probably impossible to quantify how much greenwashing exists, regulatory challenges related to it have risen over the past several years. These include actions by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. state attorneys general, private litigation and challenges by the Better Business Bureau.

Greenwashing is in the eye of the accuser. The FTC considers greenwashing through the eyes of the "reasonable consumer," which leaves lots of room for interpretation. Accusations of greenwashing tend to focus on one of two things: either the types of words or even the colors used to describe a product or brand, such as lawsuits charging that Keurig falsely called its coffee pods as recyclable — or the tactics used to achieve a goal, such as Bloomberg's calling out companies for using renewable energy credits (RECs) toward their net zero targets. Watchdog groups may target an industry leader, for example, that fumbles in efforts to decarbonize its supply chain, yet they leave alone competitors who haven’t even announced a similar initiative.

Greenwashing is 'more sloppy than sinister.' Cases of a nefarious business setting out to mislead the public are relatively few and far between. More often, greenwashing charges tend to target companies fumbling their way through their sustainability communications. Maybe someone without the right expertise led a public relations or ad campaign, or a communication gap arose from failing to speak to the right stakeholders or providing inadequate (or inaccurate) proof points.

Dealing with haters and critics

Of course, even the best-laid communications plan can attract criticism — sometimes more than if a company had said nothing at all. "The rise of anti-ESG rhetoric" was a top concern among Comms Summit attendees, according to a pre-event survey.

Adversaries who slur business leadership as "woke" for addressing the world’s urgent social and environmental challenges are true "haters," but not every critic is a hater. Here are the three types of pushback and what to learn from them:

Haters. Haters are diametrically opposed to your existence. For instance, they may hate you as a corporation because they believe capitalism shouldn’t exist. In general, don’t listen to haters — although sometimes they offer important information about what you’re getting wrong.

Critics. Critics want you to be your best self, even if there’s no business case now for what they demand that you do. They won’t stop until you do what they say, but they tend to be right over time. Greenpeace, for example, has "been right" years ahead of the curve about climate change, biodiversity and plastics. Instead, consider critics your early warning system of what will go mainstream next.

Critical friends. Critical friends push you to do better, telling you what you’re doing isn’t good enough, calling you out on greenwash or on not reaching targets or claims. But don’t confuse critical friends for haters.

That’s a taste. There’s more insight and inspiration in this free, downloadable report. Feel free to share it with your internal and external comms partners.

What are your biggest sustainability communications challenges? I’d love to know.

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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