sustainability communication

G4 Sustainability Reporting: Why it’s great and how communication can help

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First, let me admit that I’m somewhat new to the nuts and bolts of sustainability reporting. I have been researching sustainability communication and CSR reporting, but last summer I spent a couple of days at Edelman in Chicago at training for GRI reporting using the G4 guidelines. At first, I worried that the training would be too dense, and I might not find much value in it. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the information was extremely interesting and relevant for communication research.

Here’s what I love about sustainability reporting with G4. It truly is a way to help corporations manage processes toward a sustainable economy. Unlike earlier iterations of the GRI report, G4 strips out all the fluff and really forces companies to focus on the most critical aspects of sustainability that will bring needed change.

Here are some great examples:
1. Outputs are divided into three categories – economic, environment, and social – and that means companies need to report in all areas. And, that provides great stories for companies to tell.

2. More is not better. Report quality is not judged on quantity of information, so companies are encouraged to be concise but thorough. Enter communication experts who do this for a living. Providing transparent and useful information (in a concise form) is an excellent way to build credibility and communicate effectively.

3. Each item needs to be measured using an approved method of collection. And, results need to be contextualized. As our trainer said, companies need to explain if their improvements are due to a “happy accident” or to management processes that lead to planned improvement. And, on the flip side, missing a goal should be contextualized because sometimes unexpected circumstances cause companies to miss their objectives, but the cause is reasonable. This is an ethical approach to reporting and builds credibility with audiences.

4. Awards are no longer a required disclosure. That means that companies do not need to disclose them (but they are free to do it). Why? Because, bottom line, awards to do not contribute to making a company more sustainable. The criteria for some awards is not known, so it’s hard to decide if the award is an indication of an important contribution. So, the decision was made not to require them. This decision makes an interesting statement about value of awards and how some may not be rigorous and really have important meaning.

5. Ethics & Integrity disclosures are required (the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication is thrilled).

6. Stakeholder engagement is new to G4 – this means more communication and more promotion. This is my favorite change because it brings sustainability reporting squarely into the communication arena, and opens up a fascinating opportunity to study stakeholder engagement in sustainability.

7. And, here is the most courageous change  – in order for a company to be “in accordance” at the comprehensive level (which is the most thorough level), it must disclose the salary of its highest paid employee in a country and how that compares to the average salary in the company in that country (not including the highest paid employee). One of the goals of GRI is to fight poverty, and frankly, this is one of the most practical ways to identify income inequity.

My final takeaway is that companies that adhere to the G4 standards, and specifically those who reach the comprehensive level of certification, will have an amazing story to tell and will contribute to their reputation in a meaningful way.

Telling a company’s sustainability story

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I just read a great article on Triple Pundit about using narratives to tell a company’s sustainability story. Nicole Skibola from Centurion Consulting offers some excellent suggestions, but my favorite is to think about your audiences as actual people, not as categories. Don’t try to craft communication for “customers” or “law-makers” but rather think of specific individuals whom you are trying to reach. That will help you create a more interesting and compelling narrative for your audiences. Yes, it’s a lesson from communication 101, but sometimes we get lost when communicating about complex subjects, like sustainability. It’s good to remember that at the other end of the message is the receiver, a real person.

Read the full article here to learn about the three step process to developing an effective narrative for sustainability:

http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/09/tell-companys-sustainability-story/

Don’t be gloomy: A marketing strategy for sustainable products

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According to a recent article in Triple Pundit, a popular panel session at SXSWeco offered a fresh perspective on sustainability marketing.

Want to sell more of your sustainable products? Time to drop the green finger wagging and start peddling a more joyous life

What motivates consumers of green products? “Empowerment, efficacy, and fun.” One of the panelists shared his observations on trends over the past few years.

…[trends have changed from] pre-recession, where the focus was abstractly on “the environment,” to the recession years, where the focus was on saving money, to the emerging post-recession context, where the focus is shifting towards the health and wellness of the individual consumer. In this new highly-personal context, empowerment is in and guilt is out.

If this is true (and I would love to see the underlying research), then we are seeing a shift in values around sustainability. Rather than being motivated by guilt or fear, consumers of sustainable products are driven by a desire for enjoyment and empowerment. Frankly, it sounds like future sustainability campaigns may be a lot more fun to create!

Read the article here: http://www.triplepundit.com/2013/10/sell-sustainable-product-stop-being-gloomy/

U.N. Climate Change Report Released: Corporations Should Take Notice

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The UN released a report on climate change today, and it points to human behaviors as a primary driver of global warming. Here is a quote from the article:

Even if we end carbon dioxide emissions today, effects could linger for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And certain changes may already be irreversible.

via U.N. climate change report points blame at humans – CNN.com.

Scary words. If I worked in a corporate communications or sustainability department today, I would be planning ways to promote my responsible environmental behaviors in the coming weeks and months. This kind of news has a way to coming back around to those who hold the most responsibility. People want someone to blame, and research shows that the greatest amount of emissions come from energy and industry, as I mentioned in my earlier post.

Many large corporations take environmental sustainability seriously, and they work to keep their emissions low. However, 50 companies are responsible for 73% of greenhouse gases, according to the CDP. They need to take notice and step up their efforts to minimize environmental impacts. Otherwise, the fear that this news creates will be redirected as anger toward the companies that have had the largest role in the problem.

And what about policy? This is just the kind of news that creates more public will for energy and environmental policy. It comes on the heels of recent proposals by the EPA and the Whitehouse that will limit emissions from power plants and fund research into new clean technologies. Now would be a good time to propose more policies that move us toward renewable resources.

You can read the report at climatechange2013.org.

Climate change communication strategies: Maybe I should take it back…

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Earlier this week I pointed out that the top climate change nonprofits are not actively using health frames when talking about environmental issues. But, just a few days ago, when Congress passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act” the nonprofits came out in force, pointing out how lowering the bar for polluters raises the risk for public health. Sierra Club, in a news release on its website, pointed out that by passing the bill, republicans in the House “are seeking to lay waste to numerous public health protections critical to ensuring that American families have safe air and clean water.”

Sierra Club offers a nice summary of impacts from the potential legislation. Below is a list pulled from its website:

  • “Gut the Clean Air Act by repealing life-saving clean air safeguards against deadly soot and smog pollution and eliminate any national protections for toxic mercury;Bar the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing safeguards for carbon pollution by redefining the term “air pollutant” to exclude greenhouse gases;
  • Handcuff the Department of Interior from issuing safeguards to prevent streams from destruction if doing so would prevent the mining of a single lump of coal;
  • Allow for the uninhibited dumping of toxic, carcinogenic coal ash while allowing coal companies to avoid fixing unsafe coal ash dumps, cleaning up the sites they have contaminated, or preventing another catastrophic disaster like the Tennessee TVA spill in 2008;
  • Kill key pieces of the Clean Water Act that allow the EPA to enforce water quality standards and protect waterways from pollution;
  • Roll back recently finalized vehicle fuel efficiency standards that will save drivers thousands at the pump, reduce our dependence on oil and create jobs in the auto industry.”

Why the sudden focus on health? It appears that nonprofits do see the link between pollution and health, and I think the science would support that link. The link between melting ice caps and health is a bit more difficult to pin down. I appreciate that nonprofits are pushing the health message around the Coal Act, because it does, in fact, have consequences for the health of many Americans.

Top climate change nonprofits don’t talk about health…but they should

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Earlier this week I wrote about the challenge of framing global warming effectively and how linking health to environmental damage could be a profitable strategy (see related NPR story). Turns out, only a couple of the largest nonprofits addressing global warming promote a clear relationship between the issue and human health.  Philanthropedia released a report titled National Climate Change 2012 Top Nonprofit Ranking, and a quick review of the landing pages for the nonprofits found that only two mentioned health issues or in any way linked the environment and health.

On one, the Union for Concerned Scientists is trying to Make Pfizer Feel the Heat by asking the public to express their disapproval for Pfizer’s funding of the Heartland Institute, a think tank that denies the link between health and global warming. The other, the Environmental Defense Fund website, prominently features Health as one of its main sections.

I’m certainly not suggesting that public health be the most prominent message from environmental groups and nonprofits, but I do think they should talk about the impact of environmental changes on human health. If we can show the public how decisions toward the environment affect their health and the health of their children, I suspect they will be more sensitive to making the right choices.

Melting ice caps or asthmatic children: The challenge of framing the consequences of global warming

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NPR ran a great story this week on communicating about global warming. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public doesn’t react as strongly to messages about melting ice caps and endangered polar bears as they do to threats to their own health and the health of their children. So, what does this mean for sustainability communicators? It means that we might be using the wrong frames to motivate environmentally responsible behaviors.

Do the symbols that we use for global warming miss the mark?

We know that those who already care about an issue like global warming are more likely to pay attention and act on relevant messages, but that doesn’t help us motivate those who don’t care. The NPR article raises the possibility of tapping into the emotions of those who are apathetic about climate change, by connecting the issue with the reality of public health.

Another interesting issue that the article raised was the credibility of those who typically promote environmental messages (politicians, environmental activists, journalists, etc.) vs. healthcare workers. Health officials, as the article says, are trusted more than other sources, and as a result their messages are more readily accepted. Considering this, environmental groups might find partnerships with health officials to be more effective than celebrity endorsements (not to diminish the effectiveness of this strategy with youth) to raise awareness of the consequences of environmental damage.

As the article suggests, not everyone agrees that health and environment can be linked in this way, but one of the main proponents for this new strategy, Matt Nisbet, is quoted in the article. You can read more about his thoughts on communicating about climate change in an upcoming book that I edited with Lee Ahern titled Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. The scheduled publication date is mid-October. More to come.

As a side note: Research that I conducted with Lee Ahern through the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University looked at 30 years of environmental communication and found that ads tended to position environmental actions as good for the earth (rather than warning that lack of actions would lead to harm to the earth). And, the ads advocated for taking action (recycling, signing a petition, etc.) rather than conserving (using less water or electricity). See more articles about findings from this project here and here.

Sustainability communication strategies: the good and the bad

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I’ve been reading through a series of articles on CR communication by AHA! found on the Triple Pundit website. Jen Boynton offers some interesting insights in her articles Why Communication Should be at the Heart of Any CSR Strategy, 5 Reasons Why You Need a CSR Communications Roadmap, and Top 10 Mistakes in CSR Communication on how CR communication can help an organization meet its sustainable business objectives.  A few points resonated with me and fall in line with research I’m conducting with sustainability communicators at large corporations in the US. This group of passionate communicators loves to talk about their companies’ sustainability efforts, but they’re also candid about the struggles of communicating complex issues to sometimes apathetic and sometimes hostile audiences.

So, here are a few thoughts that I would pass along from Boynton’s articles and from my own experiences. First, if you’ve done something, say it. I’m always surprised when sustainability reputation and reality don’t match. In fact, I’ve talked with a number of companies that the public ranks poorly in sustainability, but the real numbers tell another story. In this case, the companies need to be the ones telling the story. But, often these organizations are afraid of greenwashing, so they err on the side of working quietly behind the scenes. Though this is an honorable approach to sustainability activities, it isn’t helping the companies gain the reputation that they deserve. Transparency can help prevent greenwashing and still let companies tell their story.

However, let’s be honest; not everyone cares about your sustainability efforts as much as you do. Frankly, most people only pay attention when a company is causing harm to the environment. They really don’t care that the company reduced its carbon impact or uses less water in its production processes. They just expect that kind of activity from corporations. So, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to reach a broad audience with messages of sustainable business practices may not be the best use of resources. Rather, these audiences may want to know about your cause marketing efforts toward environmental issues.

But, some audiences do care. Advocacy groups, local government leaders, community members, and employees want to know about the efforts companies are making to minimize their impact on the environment, so take time to talk with these audiences and listen to what they have to say about your actions. This will build trust and openness in the relationship and lead to long-term gains in reputation.

Grant funding for CSR communication research

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The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University has issued a call for grant proposals on CSR communication. The text of the call follows:

Page Legacy Scholar Grants: Call for Research Proposals

In today’s environment, corporate social responsibility has emerged as an important management concept. Publics expect companies to be engaged in responsible activities that make a significant contribution to communities and society. Though corporations have adopted more sustainable and responsible practices, they often struggle to communicate effectively about their CSR activities. Practitioners find that promoting environmental successes can be risky as they sometimes are met with skepticism or backlash from activist groups. Too, traditional methods of promoting community involvement or diversity may do little to bolster the reputation of the company.

The Arthur W. Page Center seeks grant proposals that address the issues of corporate social responsibility communication. Research projects should deepen the field’s understanding of the issues with a focus on real-world solutions for practitioners. Submissions should clearly demonstrate how the research will benefit the practice of public relations and how the authors intend to disseminate findings to the field. Grants will range from $1000 to $5000.

Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

  • Measuring the impact of CSR communication
  • Benefits of communicating about diversity in the corporate environment
  • Leveraging community partnerships in communication
  • Promoting corporate volunteer programs
  • Building relationships with advocacy groups
  • Communicating about environmental impacts
  • Ethics of CSR communication

The research conducted from approved proposals will be evaluated for a special issue of a public relations journal on corporate social responsibility guest edited by the author of this call.  Authors of successful submissions may be asked to participate in a webinar or conference panel and/or make their work available for distribution through a website on CSR.

See the Page Center website for details (pagecenter.comm.psu.edu, click on Page Legacy Scholar Grants). Questions should be directed to Dr. Denise Bortree at dsb177@psu.edu or (814)865-1274.

 Application materials must be received by the Page Center on or before January 10, 2013.