sustainability communication

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.

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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.