More than climate change

The many definitions of sustainability make the concept hard to communicate effectively. David Burrows talks to seven industry experts about how they help their teams and stakeholders understand the complex issues involved.

Climate Change
Greener energy: The ‘why biofuels’ question is a key part of BP’s sustainability communications

The panel:

Brian Bannister, director of communications, PwC
Julian Little, communications and government affairs manager, Bayer CropScience
Karen Hall, corporate communications director, InterfaceFlOR (EMEAI)
Claire Jones, corporate PR manager, Sony Europe
Karelle Lamouche, marketing and distribution director, Accor UK & Ireland
Helen Dunk, communications and media manager, Friends of the Earth
Olivier Macé, head of global strategy and regulatory affairs, BP Biofuels

Marketing Week (MW): Sustainability is core to many business strategies, but it can be defined in many ways. Does this make it a hard concept to communicate?

Brian Bannister (BB): The language of climate change and green development is ripe for misinterpretation. Perceptions and rhetoric get in the way of people’s understanding of some pretty fundamental issues; for example, resource availability, food pricing, economic development and energy security. For us, sustainability means rethinking how we do business.

Claire Jones (CJ): There are still many definitions of the term sustainability – and we’ve worked hard to engage our employees to ensure a collective understanding. It’s important that employees are clear about what sustainability means to Sony and how every person in the team can contribute.

Karelle Lamouche (KL): As the word [sustainability] is used to embrace everything, we are at risk of never being understood internally or externally. Companies risk talking too generically. If we talk too widely we tend to confuse the audience – but people need clear messages and precise actions. The broad definition of the word can too often be an excuse for not really saying anything.

MW: How do you ensure that your teams know your organisation’s definition of sustainability?

BB: We’ve rolled out an extensive sustainability awareness programme designed to help our people understand the complex issues at the heart of sustainability. This includes a bi-monthly speaker series, sustainability training module, and ongoing tips and support to work more sustainably. Our board is fundamentally committed to it, whether it’s our travel reduction targets, use of renewable energy, or our community business support programme. It acts as the anchor around which we develop our strategy, debate the possibilities and take action.

Karen Hall (KH): Education is key. We run a number of training programmes, from induction to more advanced sustainability education. The training relates it to our business processes and also incorporates the latest external thinking on key subjects such as waste reduction, climate change, manufacturing and innovation.

We have found that this helps everyone understand what it means to us as a business and helps our teams communicate Mission Zero [our aim to leave zero negative impact on the environment by 2020] externally.

Helen Dunk (HD): The link between people and the planet has been at the heart of our work for more than four decades and we’ve recently refreshed our brand to put this thinking at the core of how we communicate.

Staff from every part of the organisation helped steer this work, and we involved supporters in the thinking behind it too. Our spruced-up brand isn’t separate to our campaigning work or the aims of our organisation overall – it emerges directly from our strategy and how we think we can be most effective in today’s context.

Because of this, staff have been quick to put the thinking behind our refreshed identity into practice through our campaigns, our approach to fundraising and so on – and it’s helping us make a real splash.

bees
Because it works: Campaigns such as Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause are a catalyst for political change

Julian Little (JL): Sustainability is part and parcel of what we do, but even within a company we have to avoid the perception of greenwash, so making bland statements about sustainability is not sufficient.

You have to be clear on why you feel this is important, what you are doing, how you intend to measure the result and how individuals can make a difference. It might involve competitions on ideas to help reduce our footprint. It might be committees that look at best practice in one site and apply it to another. It involves discussions reinforced by emails and the intranet.

MW: Who do you work with in other departments to develop a sustainability communications strategy?

KH: At Interface, everyone is involved in sustainability. So I work with various departments and people at different times according to the issue. I also collaborate very closely with our ‘green team’, which is an externally focused team of people who are especially knowledgeable about all sustainability issues.

I wouldn’t say that we have a separate sustainability communications strategy as such. Everything we do revolves around Mission Zero, so part of my job is to ensure that our communications reflect that.

CJ: We all know that it can be tricky to work effectively across many teams but, if you do, it can be hugely rewarding. At Sony Europe, PR, marcoms, internal communications and our environmental experts work closely, with weekly taskforce calls, daily information sharing and project collaboration.

We also involve product teams, headquarters and our research and development teams in projects – ensuring we maintain a close working relationship with key stakeholders across the business. We believe that communications also needs to act as a mirror to the business [and we need to ask:] What are people saying? What is working? And importantly, where do we need to do better? It’s our job to make sure this information is shared back into the business, so that it can be used to inform future decision-making.

MW: What recent communications have you done around sustainability?

Olivier Macé (OM): We’ve organised a series of breakfast events. These are not uniquely about sustainability but it’s the strongest theme that runs through them. They look at the question of ‘why biofuels’ [are being developed] and we’ve tried to stay well away from any BP propaganda.

These events are about creating a place for debate and we invite people with a variety of views. If we want to improve the quality of the discussions [around biofuels] it will take a series of small but relevant activities, carried out consistently – and eventually people will see the merits.

CJ: FutureScapes is an open collaboration initiative in partnership with the sustainability organisation, Forum for the Future. It sets out what life might be like in 2025 and how technology might help us to live more sustainable lives. In terms of communications, the FutureScapes project sought to kick off the conversation. We invited consumers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media, bloggers, futurists, Sony people, other big brands, artists and writers – inviting ideas, thoughts and opinions.

We have been able to attract audiences outside of those who are ‘green aware’. The creative approach is reflective of the Sony brand; at one point we had NGOs, writers and journalists on their hands and knees painting a creative response to this question [about what life might be like in 2025] on a door.

If we have to talk too widely we tend to confuse the audience – but people need clear messages and precise actions

KH: Our recent communications have been aimed at promoting our efforts to reduce our biggest environmental impact – our use of oil-based raw materials to make our products. We’ve introduced a carpet tile made from 100% recycled yarn from reclaimed fishing nets, with recycled backing made from reclaimed carpet tiles and manufacturing waste.

Our approach has been to focus our conversations with the media and other target audiences on the wider business issue that this development addresses.

We’ve talked about resource scarcity and how so-called waste from one industry can become the raw materials for another. It all comes back to having a conversation, encouraging debate and sharing experiences that could benefit other sectors.

MW: How can you balance the long-term goals of sustainable business with the pressure to deliver results from PR quickly?

KL: Even now the issue remains a B2B challenge and within this sector there is more opportunity to speak about sustainability. However, outside the B2B arena the opportunity is less – not many national newspapers have columns dedicated to the sustainable industry and the consumer communication channels are limited in opportunity or perspective.

As such, people [and businesses] resist the desire to speak in-depth about an issue that is still considered by the media as an expert, rather than mass-message, subject.

Health, energy and food are all tangible subjects that people understand without the science that often diffuses and confuses the topic. That’s why with PLANET 21 [Accor’s new global sustainability strategy], we aimed to be far more tangible, factual and accessible in our targets and communication so we can be understood by our business, industry, stakeholders and consumers.

JL: Almost by definition, sustainability and a quick-hit approach are incompatible. That said, putting into place metrics is a starting point that most people can recognise. But be transparent with such metrics and establish reasonable goals that are achievable in the lifetime of the company.

We recognised that people, power, heat and water were key metrics for the company so we measured what we had, what we did and how we did it – and published it for all to see. We then decided what we wanted to achieve, and we report our progress at regular intervals.

In a world of multi-media possibilities it’s interesting how, with this subject, traditional tactics are the more effective

MW: How do you adapt your communications around sustainability for different stakeholders?

BB: Accessibility for us – in messages and delivery – is the key. We use multimedia including our PwC app, film, animation, case studies, websites, Twitter, events and so on. In a world of multi-media possibilities it’s interesting how, with this subject – which so often defies tangible definition – the traditional tactics are sometimes the most effective. People like to see sustainability in action. When we opened our new office [the only building in the UK with a BREEAM sustainability rating of outstanding], the most successful marketing and communications was offering staff, clients, schools, suppliers and students the opportunity to come in and have a look around.

HD: There’s no point in talking to everyone using the same language – people have different interests and want to get involved with us in different ways. Some of our communications are aimed at reaching out to people who may not know much about us – for instance, our new campaign The Bee Cause, which we launched with a wildflower meadow stunt on the South Bank [in London], a bee-friendly seed giveaway and fun online actions.

But for politicians, we’ll focus much more on the need for prime minister David Cameron to come up with an action plan to save the bee because of the huge potential cost to the British economy if we don’t. We’re drawing people in who are natural supporters because they are interested in wildlife and gardening, but may not have heard much about us – and then using this public pressure to effect political change.

JL: It’s about delivering the right target messages to the right people: get it wrong, and you lose the opportunity to convey your messages; get it right and people understand that you are taking this subject seriously, and are taking steps to rectify sustainability issues.

CJ: Whatever the story, wherever you choose to start the conversation and whoever you engage with, communication must be authentic. And if you invite conversation, it must be genuine.

MW: How do you ensure that your sustainability messaging is not seen as ‘greenwash’?

OM: It’s all about the content. You need facts and figures that are beyond dispute. You don’t say something that you can’t substantiate. Often, accusations of greenwash come when small-scale pilots are being [over-used] for communications purposes. There is nothing wrong with doing things on a small scale, but you must highlight that they are on a small scale. For example, if you are doing a test flight using biofuels, that’s fine [to publicise it] but make sure it’s clear that it is a test flight.

BB: Like it or not, our industry is famous for numbers and number-crunching – so we’ve got an interesting position to challenge it from. It gives the work that we do rigour and credibility. For example, we worked last year with Puma on creating the world’s first environmental profit and loss account. That created enormous interest from business and media.

Putting a €145m value on businesses’ annual environmental impact challenged the view of how sustainability issues are material to business, how they can impact their long-term growth and prospects, and how they can act on them.

KL: We are factual not aspirational. For example, Accor hotel brands have internal measures in place to protect the hotels from greenwashing accusations and guarantee the system’s reliability. A minimum level of performance is required for access to signage and to be able to communicate about PLANET 21.

KH: Our focus on transparency and sticking to the facts rather than ‘marketing’ sustainability has helped. We often collaborate with like-minded partners, associations and NGOs, such as the Confederation of British Industry, Business in the Community, Tomorrow’s Company and The UK Green Building Council, which enables us to have more of a credible industry-wide discussion on issues that are important to us.

MW: More and more companies are using social media to communicate about sustainability. Is this issue a good fit for the medium, and why?

BB: Social media can play a really important role in opening up information and debate on the subject. We use a blog and Twitter to bring sustainability issues to life day to day, whether it’s translating what a policy change means for the UK, or reports from our team on working with small holder farmers in Malawi.

We also use our PwC app to tailor feeds from our research teams or news updates. At the recent Durban climate summit, we ran a live online briefing with a Q&A, followed by Twitter and blog updates from our team on the ground at the summit.

When the negotiations overran by two days, it was a vital way of communicating updates, and the bigger picture issues. We also found increasingly that media enquiries were reaching us through these routes, rather than traditional email or phone alone.

HD: Notwithstanding the environmental costs of running servers, the internet is a great way of getting the sustainability message out there for any company. For an organisation with relatively few resources, like us, it can help us punch above our weight, amplify our message and involve supporters in our work.

We recently gained our 40,000th Twitter follower – putting us in the same league as some of the larger UK charities. Dialogue is really important to us, too, and the internet is fantastic for opening up this two-way communication. You also get a degree of accountability and transparency which would be harder to achieve without social media.

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