Communicating Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility
“Sustainability” is a watchword for today’s corporations, nonprofits and government agencies. It’s now a driver for incorporating environmentally friendlier operations, policies and actions. Today’s organizations are well-served by making sustainability part of their overall corporation communications. In this blog, we will review what defines sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, and how you can merge your activities into your corporate communications strategies.
What Is Corporate Social Responsibility and CSR Communications?
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) includes all the efforts and actions you take to be accountable for your impacts on the local and global environment, as well as on social conditions and well-being of your employees, customers and community. It’s a way to expand your company’s purpose beyond bottom-line financial issues. CSR may ultimately require higher material and labor costs, but adopting the practices may pay dividends in the long run. For publicly traded companies, shareholders are increasingly interested in communicating corporate social responsibility and sustainability achievements and efforts—it’s popular for potential employees, customers and even business partners. Today, nearly all of the 250 largest companies in the world report on sustainability issues.
Corporate social responsibility involves a number of key activities, including:
- Adopting a code of ethics
- Following a workplace health and safety program
- Protecting the environment (the main but not exclusive thrust of “sustainability”)
- Getting agreements from suppliers to bolster CSR
- Making smart donations
- Avoiding “greenwashing”
Making sure your stakeholders are keenly aware of your sustainability and CSR work is crucial to maintaining their confidence in you. That’s where corporate communications come in.
Types of CSR and Corporate Communications
You probably already practice many kinds of corporate communications. These include internal and external communications strategies and methods, and CSR communications falls neatly into these. Sustainability also aligns neatly as a corporate-level concern. Certainly, efforts to mitigate climate change, water scarcity, waste volumes, loss of biodiversity and other negative impacts to our environment are important issues to address and report on!
Corporate communications have been in existence since the creation of the modern corporation. Press releases to news organizations, meetings and reports to shareholders, and newsletters date back more than 100 years. Since, advertising on television, radio, the internet (and in print, of course) have been mainstays of corporate communications for decades.
Sustainability reporting has been a more recent arrival, taking shape in the early 1990s in response to an increased interest in environmental reporting and accompanying issues. Much of this reporting from businesses adopted the traditional structure and format of the corporate annual report, though from a content point of view, they may have been more properly classified as “environmental reports.” Over time, there was a clear tendency to expand content to include societal and also financial issues. In fact, the percentage of “pure” environmental reports published by the largest 250 multinationals declined from 98 percent in 1999 to 71 percent in 2002.
This trend only intensified as a general effort to standardize sustainability reporting and to prevent greenwashing (the practice of exaggerating efforts or making claims that cannot be documented or proven) permeated corporate C-suites and communications departments. Several initiatives, including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), “Triple Bottom Line” reporting (People, Profits, Planet) and the Carbon Disclosure Project, have propelled the standardization movement.
Today, almost all major corporations take a broader view of sustainability, with a nearly equal focus on environmental, societal and financial issues.
Internal Communications and CSR
It’s important to make sure your employees (and consultants and contractors) are well-versed in your CSR efforts as well as your company’s impact on your community. Your employees can be your best ambassadors! They are key participants in communicating corporate social responsibility efforts, and sharing their stories is a great tool for engagement and recruiting new talent. Intranets, internal emails, town halls, messages and videos are all valuable tools to reach out to your internal audiences.
External Communications and CSR
Shareholders, customers, even competing businesses are all key stakeholders for your external communications. Cobalt Communications has helped its client Solenis, a specialty chemical manufacturer, to communicate its sustainability efforts and achievements, through blog posts, an annual sustainability report, and records of achievements on the company’s website. For many companies, the right mix of communications channels can vary. But press releases, webinars, externally oriented videos, podcasts, emails, and sustainability and CSR reports are external communications tools that have proven value.
Five “Must Haves” of Corporate Social Responsibility and Communications
Authenticity—All departments working on one or more aspects of CSR must be in alignment and communicating clearly with another. Your actions must agree with the messages you turn out, and not be part of a “greenwashing” scheme.
Transparency—Be factual and straightforward in your communications. Don’t be too self-congratulatory and note your failures and areas for improvement, as well as your success stories. Make sure you know what your stakeholders want to see or hear from you.
Frequency—Getting your message through to your stakeholders is always a good thing! But you don’t want to overwhelm your audiences with too much messaging. Too many messages can be expensive and can raise skepticism among your stakeholders.
Consistency—Make regular reporting a mainstay of your CSR communications. Annual reports, quarterly news, regularly scheduled emails or other communications will build trust and make sure you deliver messages that can be relied upon.
Flexibility—Demonstrate that you can adjust to changes in social conditions, environmental issues and other events. More often than not, these changes will be in the news, and you need to stay relevant and on top of your own commercial environment! You’ll also need to review the types of channels you use for messaging and adjust accordingly based on what your audience members use.
Is Your Sustainability Reporting Sustainable?
When creating a comprehensive plan for communicating corporate social responsibility, it’s important to make sure it’s paired with your overall corporate communications efforts. Demonstrated progress in sustainability can help build relationships and show your company’s authentic commitment to environmental and social issues. At Cobalt, we have a long track record of helping our clients develop a sound, authentic and effective CSR, sustainability and corporate communications strategy. Contact us today to see how we can help you communicate with clarity and consistency.
A Glossary of Sustainability Terms Used in this Article
- Carbon (CO2, CH4)—The primary element in two of the most important greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane.
- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)— A management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations.
- Environment, Social and Governance (ESG)— A set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments.
- Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)—An independent, international organization that provides the world’s most widely used standards for sustainability reporting.
- Greenwashing—Activities intended to make people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.
- Sustainability—The balance between the environment, equity, and economy.
- Triple Bottom Line—A business concept that posits firms should commit to measuring their social and environmental impact in addition to their financial performance; it can be broken down into “three Ps”: profit, people, and the planet.