One of the best parts of Sustainable Brands ’15 (besides stand-up paddle board yoga and working out with ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers…) was all the conversation around the many stakeholders companies interact with on a regular basis. Over and over, panelists presented examples of the ways they communicate with those stakeholders about sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
Perhaps the best point about the need to communicate came from Jill Manata, senior director of public affairs for McDonald’s, who admitted that the company used to “try to get caught doing things right.” Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
The real problem here is that it becomes a cycle – because if you just hope to “get caught” doing the right thing but don’t, it may feel like stakeholders don’t care – which means it’s harder to make the case for additional investment in sustainability initiatives. The answer, as Manata notes, is transparency.
Companies have to shift from just doing to instead doing and communicating in order to see real momentum and impact. But a word of caution – as Manata said in a follow-up statement, it’s also about the quality of what you’re communicating. Focus on the sustainability initiatives that align with your business strategy, for example, and make the dialogue engaging (using social media is a great way to achieve engagement, by the way).
In addition to Manata’s great points, many other panelists highlighted the important of communicating with specific stakeholder groups and offered some great ideas. Here are a few particularly strong points:
Customers: Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation for Levi Strauss, argued that communicating with customers about sustainability requires thinking beyond the moral imperative. Sure, buying your green product is probably the right thing to do, but (unfortunately) that’s usually not enough to motivate customers for the long term. So, figure out what that main reason is and link both messages together.
Customers, part 2: This is really cool: when AT&T communicated with its customers about its corporate social responsibility activities, it saw its Net Promoter Score double. (A Net Promoter Score “measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others.”)
Employees: Procter and Gamble reported that it asks employees whether they understand the company’s environmental vision and goals in its annual employee engagement survey. Of course, when you think about it, that makes perfect sense! To achieve your sustainability goals, you need all your employees on board, working in the same direction. So you’d better make sure they understand what those goals are – and how they fit in with their other goals, such as growth targets.
Employees, part 2: According to Letitia Webster from VF Corporation, employee engagement and internal communications are both critical to the success of sustainability. Again, it’s because you need people from across your organization on board to make any headway against your goals. Also, it’s their activities that are going to determine your overall sustainability story. When you hear about all the great, innovative activities underway at VF Corporation, it’s helpful to remember that employee engagement underpins all of those.
Investors: When Unilever shared that the company’s Sustainable Living brands have better top- and bottom-line growth than its other brands, let’s just say it wasn’t lost on me that investors would most certainly care about that. The takeaway is that it matters how you tell your sustainability story to them. Go beyond reporting what you do and instead share the impact – to your bottom line, to your reputation and/or to your community partnerships. Think ahead for them, so they don’t have to do the work of wondering why you are telling them (because they probably won’t do the work).