Six ways CSR professionals can communicate through the coronavirus outbreak

As the Covid 19 outbreak continues across the globe, CSR and sustainability professionals, like most, will be grappling with changes to their working schedule and job remit. Here, edie rounds up six pieces of best-practice advice for evolving engagement with key contacts during these uncertain times.

Six ways CSR professionals can communicate through the coronavirus outbreak

Just a few short months ago, the Covid 19 outbreak may have seemed far away to UK residents. But Government announcements over the past few days have unveiled rapid increases in the number of sick and dead, coupled with delay measures which become stricter by the hour.

Amid this backdrop of ever-changing advice and news, and at a time when the majority of us are being encouraged to change our day-to-day schedules in order to mitigate negative health impacts, leaders are facing questions they may not have the answers to.

And even for those of us outside of leadership positions, it would be hard to argue that general conversations have not been tinged by fear and uncertainty.

Changes to daily life are universal, meaning that CSR and sustainability professionals, like the rest of the population, must grapple with them.

While the full impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on green policy progress, low-carbon investment and social sustainability remains to be seen – but is likely to be negative in the short-term – something which professionals in this space can do immediately is change the way they communicate with key stakeholders, from executives and staff, to consumers and commercial partners.

With that in mind, edie asked thought leaders from this space for their best-practice advice on communicating in times of crisis. Here, we round up X of their top tips.

1) Clarity and timing are key

In a time when most major news outlets are live blogging and social media feeds are saturated with ever-changing trending tags, many people are feeling anxious about constantly checking for updates are uncertain about how to avoid fake news.

According to Inspiring Sustainability’s Adam Woodhall, CSR and sustainability professionals are well-placed to cut through this noise and provide reassurance, given their ability to engage various stakeholders. But in order to do so, they may need to temporarily postpone project launches or roll-outs.

“When things happen so fast, realistically, people need clear guidance and boundaries on the issue at hand,” Woodhall explained.

“The right timing is key. We have a project at present which we could start talking about this week, but will not. We would prefer to wait a few weeks and see how people respond to the new situation; at that point, perhaps they will come back and say ‘it’s good to hear about something different’. For now, it feels uncomfortable because there is far too much uncertainty.”

Global Action Plan’s (GAP) senior partner Chris Large echoed these sentiments, adding: “In such a serious situation, we, as environmental communicators, should really focus on reassuring and providing basic information about the present crisis.”

2) Now is not the time for self-promotion

Inspiring Sustainability’s Woodhall also explained that, in the consulting space, he had seen a trend of some firms using the current situation to sell additional services.

But many of communications focused around additional spending, he noted, had “backfired” when posted on social media, attracting negative comments from the general public which could, at scale, lead to clients and other key stakeholders dropping support.

“If you’re trying to communicate an environmental message at present, while linking it to the current situation, there is a risk of it coming across as piggy-backing – especially if you are a consultant,” Woodhall summarised. “Now is the time to bring creative value that is not self-promoting.”

3) Check-in with the C-suite…

When H&M appointed former sustainability manager Helena Helmersson as chief executive last month, the debate around CSR and sustainability professionals’ position in board-level discussions rapidly took off.

While the current atmosphere is doubtless not ideal for asking for a promotion or additional responsibilities, it is, as Merlin Entertainments’ group head of sustainability Dare Ilori told edie, an opportune moment to check in with the C-suite – given that they are likely grappling with decisions with big financial and social implications.

“We need to work with executive decision-makers to see how business targets and strategies might be changing at this time, then reflect those changes in our work,” Ilori explained.

“We need to be fully aware of [our organisations’] strategic priorities and how sustainability can support the delivery of priorities at this uncertain time.”

Indeed, professionals in this space will likely be well-versed in balancing impacts across the triple bottom line.

4) … And your NGO partners

In order to deliver against their environmental and social targets, many corporates have forged partnerships with NGOs that can bring expert experience, front-line contacts and scientific evidence to the table.

But in the current climate, NGOs are grappling with falling donation rates and reduced volunteering hours. As such, they may not be able to deliver joint projects at scales previously agreed, or in timelines which, last year, would have been feasible. According to GAP’s Large, communicating transparently to adjust these factors sooner rather than later is key.

“NGOs are generally at the end of the chain of finance and those which work through corporate partnerships or public donations will be feeling the brunt of the economic impact.

“So any way that CSR professionals at corporates can shield their NGO partners will be vitally important.”

Similarly, many conversations at present centre around community support. Teams already working with NGOs that help vulnerable groups may want to increase communications or launch new temporary initiatives around, for example, food redistribution. 

5) Rethink your staff engagement schemes

For many CSR and sustainability professionals, developing and delivering schemes which help staff to reduce their carbon footprint, energy consumption or resource use in the workplace is a core part of the daily to-do list.

According to Hubbub co-founder Trewin Restorick, staff may benefit from existing schemes being adjusted for home working rather than paused altogether, given the mental benefits of maintaining routines.

“Our decision has been to think about the new reality of people’s lives, which means getting across the messages that are absolutely essential first and foremost,” Restorick said. “But also, because there will be a lot of people self-isolating or working from home, we’re shifting communications over to things people need and can do at home.”

Hubbub’s latest blog, Restorick explained, was developed to pose domestic behaviours which do have environmental benefits as, first and foremost, positive for wellbeing and personal finance. It includes advice on avoiding food waste and growing food at home in order to reduce food bills, for example.

As for professionals looking to launch entirely new behaviour change schemes, Restorick and Large both agreed that now is unlikely to be the opportune moment. They noted how some coffee shops such as Pret and Starbucks have doubled back on their cup reuse schemes over health concerns.

6) Take a step back, not a step down 

While the time may not be ripe for communications with many key stakeholders, this will mean many professionals have more time to dedicate to research to specific projects or big-picture planning.

Large said he empathised with professionals who were hoping for the rapid materialisation of new green policies this year, in the run-up to COP26. But he also urged optimism and reframing rather than a complete halt to background preparations.

“This month probably not the time to be directly lobbying policymakers on particular measures but we can be ready to put the right messages, in the right format, to parliamentarians when the time is right,” he explained.

“It is important that those who can keep the treadmill turning. We can keep research into environmental issues going, we can keep developing solutions and alternative proposals.”

Those with more time on their hands may, alternatively, wish to use it by conducting consumer research, developing a new strategy, or learning new skills. On the latter, the ICRS has made available to members a bank of webinars and downloadable resources spanning five years. edie’s downloadable insight and on-demand webinars are also available for anyone looking to improve their knowledge or skills while working remotely. 

Sarah George

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