You are the UK communications manager for a multinational company. One of your responsibilities each year is to publicise the efforts that your company puts into ensuring that it operates sustainably. You know that these efforts are truly amazing due to the strong accountability systems within your company, active stakeholder engagement, proactive board oversight, clear policies on human rights, environmental management, as well as disclosure.
You know that sustainability is imprinted into the DNA of your company’s operations – from greenhouse gas emissions, to the use of renewable energy, to working with suppliers, and ensuring sustainable products and services. So when you receive the annual sustainability report, you know that its content is comprehensive and 100% truthful. Yes, the content could benefit a bit from repackaging it in a more engaging way, which you are happy to do with the support of your team. And then you start building awareness around it through media outreach, your website and owned channels like Twitter, and Facebook. Surely, your company’s strong sustainability story will resonate with the die-hard environmental editors, concerned suppliers, NGOs and eco-friendly clients. But, your story never gets picked up by print media, gets lost in the digital world among many other similar narratives, and yet the sustainability report is barely read.
You are not alone.
According to a Corporate Citizenship paper, 95% of the largest 250 companies in the world produce a sustainability report. Furthermore, the paper states that the Corporate Register holds 65,236 sustainability reports from 12,424 companies.
This is not surprising, given that operating sustainably and reporting on it is expected from all multinational companies today. As a result, many businesses are now struggling to make their sustainability efforts stand out and bring visibility to their annual sustainability reports.
The challenge of this reality is eloquently summarised in the Corporate Citizenship paper: “For all the effort and cost of reporting, there is little evidence that the information reported is being read, informing strategic decision-making or driving any sort of change. This is a critical challenge for practitioners: if the investment fails to deliver a return, why should the business back the activity?”
The reason is that companies are looking at sustainability reporting as a one-time communications activity, instead of as an integrated campaign – a campaign that runs throughout the year, spearheaded by the communications department, with the continuous support of the operations and senior management teams.
All teams should clearly understand each other’s roles and readily contribute to sustainability communications on an ongoing basis through updates on objectives, progress and achievements.
For its part, the communications team must ensure that sustainability is a core pillar of its strategy, and that sustainability messaging is integrated within all activities and is briefed to all spokespeople. In fact, every person within the company who has a touchpoint with the outside world should be encouraged to proactively bring the company’s sustainability achievements into conversations with stakeholders where appropriate.
The content, of course, that the communication department creates around sustainability has to be relevant, concise, clear and engaging. It also needs to be perceived as authentic. One way to do that, for example, could be to “peer review” sustainability reports in the same way scientific journals are reviewed, thus also improving engagement with certain key stakeholders.
And then comes the channel. Due to the rise of social media and various digital platforms, communication professionals have an unprecedented number of tools at their disposal to ensure that communications on sustainability are continual, engaging and impactful. From creating an internal dashboard to track sustainability efforts, to building a dedicated website with interactive elements to engage consumers and stakeholders throughout the year, to creating visual snapshots of different parts of sustainability activities, to ensuring that content is appearing across all channels regularly– tactical ideas for implementation can be many.
Of course, companies can still celebrate and report on their sustainability achievements once a year, but rather than focusing all their communication efforts on this, they need to ensure that sustainability communications are structured, credible, impactful, well-targeted, and most importantly constantly front of mind – internally and externally.