Getting the message across

Graham Sprigg looks at how companies can improve the way that they communicate their environmental and social initiatives outside the business

Anyone who has been involved in the environmental market for a few years may be suffering from déjà vu at this point.

With all the talk in the media and even government about CSR reporting, some of us can be forgiven for thinking that this is a re-run of the late 1980s, when environmental reporting started to come into vogue. However, things are very different now.

In the early days of environmental reporting a few far-sighted companies realised that the concept of sustainable development was not anathema to modern corporate practices - discovering that in fact it was core to their long-term survival.

There then followed a period where most large businesses took a look at the idea of sustainable development. Many realised its fundamental importance; most began looking at how they could report their performance; and inevitably some just paid lip-service to the idea, allowing PR spin to enter the sustainable development arena as what we now term greenwash.

How times change. Globalisation has really taken hold, NGOs are far more engaged with business than ever before (and vice versa), the value of environmental best practice is now appreciated and companies are examining their social and ethical behaviour.

There's nothing really new about corporate social responsibility - organisations like Business in the Community have been actively involved in promoting its values for the past two decades. What is new is that companies now understand what it is and are willing to report their progress.

What drives CSR?

Let's start by getting back to basics. What exactly is CSR? If you have struggled with the concept of sustainable development, be warned: CSR is even harder to grasp because there is no precise definition.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) began to examine what CSR meant to business. Its work stemmed from the belief that a coherent CSR strategy offered clear business benefits in terms of the bottom line and led to an important debate about the boundaries of CSR, basically the question of where a company's sphere of influence extends to. It was Amnesty International that developed the concept of "nested spheres of responsibility". Beginning with core operations over which a company has a high degree of control, the closest spheres of influence are business partners, followed by host communities and finally governments.

While a business may have close control over issues such as health and safety, and consumption of energy and resources in its own sphere, there will be a decreasing amount of influence that can be exerted on other spheres such as government policy. As part of its work, the WBCSD proposed a value chain to help define a company's CSR boundaries. This is a useful tool because it makes it possible to map the issues and problems across a company or a product's lifecycle. It considers:

  • the processing of raw materials;
  • transportation;
  • the manufacture of products;
  • distribution; and
  • end use
Communicate with precision

One question that is often asked is: "Why do I need a communications strategy for CSR? Isn't it enough to simply practise it?" Marketing guru Philip Kotler is attributed as saying: "If you did something, but didn't tell anybody… you didn't do it." This is a good enough reason to think hard about how you communicate your own CSR achievements.

Different people embrace CSR for different reasons. Whether you want to attract socially responsible investment funds, need to improve your environmental reputation or simply hold a belief that your organisation has an obligation to manage its business ethically, there is no doubt that your stakeholders are going to be interested in what you do. This is where a well-planned communications strategy becomes important.

First, you need to identify who your stakeholders are. Next, decide what information is going to be valuable or relevant to them. Many companies overlook a number of important stakeholder groups in their initial plans. The following list is a good starting point - it can be refined to suit your own organisation.

  • NGOs;
  • shareholders;
  • investors;
  • customers;
  • legislators;
  • staff;
  • community; and
  • the media

Don't forget that internal communication is just as important as getting the messages out to wider audiences, especially for CSR initiatives which require a lot of support from staff.

Another aspect that many companies tend to overlook is that the media is just one of many stakeholder groups. Admittedly it acts as a conduit between an organisation and many of its other stakeholders, but don't rely purely on press relations to communicate CSR messages.

One of the most important rules of CSR communications, which is borne out by work undertaken by IMS and the findings of organisations such as the WBCSD, is to test your own thinking through dialogue and consultation.

What may appear to be a minor issue or a trivial success for your business could be of great significance to stakeholders - to members of the local community for example. Probe stakeholders at every step to discover precisely what they want to learn about your organisation, its business ethics and performance. These should then be carefully considered when constructing a communications strategy.

There is no place for spin in CSR. Of course you should report positive achievements as fully as possible, but anyone who is truly committed to the principles of CSR should realise that not all news will always be good. If your business encounters a problem and stakeholders want to know what's happening, tell them. Whether it's reductions in emissions, improving worker safety or a review of low-cost labour overseas, the key is to be able to report the positive progress you are making on the issues.

Finally, tailor messages to suit each stakeholder group - what represents a key issue to employees is likely to be of little interest to legislators. While SRI investors are going to be looking for information about the way in which a company calculates its environmental impacts, the local community will want to know whether things like whether or not the factory nearby is going to be expanded.

The role of the NGO

NGOs are an important stakeholder group and exert a great deal of influence over the business community. In the past two decades companies have woken up to the concept and commercial benefits of sustainable development. At the same time, NGOs have become much more business savvy. The old adversarial approach has largely disappeared and today's NGO is sharper, wiser and more in tune with the idea that not all businesses are bad.

However, while NGOs are likely to be more willing to listen and advise than previously, they have become much more difficult to engage. This is because of the explosion of interest in sustainable development, business ethics and CSR at corporate board level. There simply aren't enough Greenpeace advisors or WWF representatives to go round.

Because dialogue with all stakeholder groups, and particularly NGOs, is going to be a key part of your communications strategy, it pays to plan the organisation of dialogue strategies well in advance.

The Environment Council, which is an expert in the planning and implementation of discussions between what can often be opposing interest groups, suggests that dialogue serves three purposes: preventing problems arising; managing collaboration; and resolving disputes. Any dialogue is certainly better than none at all.

Measure results

The old environmental adage: "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it" can equally well be applied to the communicating CSR. Broadcasting a message is one thing, verifying whether or not it has made a difference is another.

Start by identifying what your company's high level messages should be. Ask the board about their values, their attitude towards CSR and the spheres of influence in which a positive impact is most important. Do all this before you begin any communications programme and ask the opinions of stakeholders at the same time. How is your business really perceived? What are the key issues internally and at local, national and global levels?

Follow this exercise up by constantly monitoring any changes in perception as the campaign progresses. Use stakeholder meetings, organised dialogue sessions and media monitoring tools to verify whether or not the key messages are being received and understood. This will ultimately enable you to shape your CSR communications strategy to achieve the best results. And remember - if you do something and you don't tell anybody… you haven't done it!



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