The Role of Communication in Sustainability
Geneva, 1 September 2008 - Specialists from different segments of business, the media and academia came together in Brazil at the 4th annual roundtable on sustainability and corporate responsibility to discuss and debate the role that communications plays in a company's sustainability. Organized by the Business Council for Sustainable Development Brazil (CEBDS), the event was held on 13 August 2008.
Speaking on the first panel, WBCSD Managing Director - Communications, Lynette Thorstensen, gave some international perspectives on communication and sustainability, noting the 8 success factors for sustainable development driven by business: leadership from the top, fundamental link to core business, central to products and services, employee engagement, sharing success and failure, transparency and clear goals and targets, respectful and sustained stakeholder engagement, future relevance and viability. But, she asked, how do we communicate these?
The best ways to communicate what a company is doing around sustainability and how it is doing it include:
Tell stories. If you have a best case example, share it with others. By letting your story out and allowing it to be scrutinized, you will build up recognition and support for your actions.
- Be honest (own up to mistakes). Even best case examples have pitfalls; no project is perfect. By owning up to your mistakes and other companies can learn from your experiences and this brings credibility to your story and your actions.
- Be human. It is the human aspect of your work that makes it interesting and real.
- Be funny. Showing a sense of humor also works in your favor, bringing your audience into the fold.
- Be compassionate. The world is a tough place, the business world even more so. Showing empathy for others strengthens your business case.
- Be credible. Off the wall stories, or claims that go too far will end up being used against you.
- Proof, proof, proof. If you can document it and show it, others will believe it and follow in your footsteps. This will minimize any fall-out or criticism that could be linked to your activities.
- What is your call to action? Be able to show why your company is taking these actions. If you cannot make the link to your core business, others won't either.
In her address, Ms. Thorstensen detailed some best practice examples of communicating sustainability.
For instance, Unilever's, Lifebuoy brand team created a campaign, called Swasthya Chetna, or health awakening, with the objective of educating 200 million Indians – 20% of the population - to wash their hands with soap after defecating and to achieve this goal within five years. The program has covered about 18,000 villages in 8 states, reaching 70 million people, including 20 million children at a cost to Hindustan Lever of 22.25 million rupees (US$ 2.7 million). The company learned three major communications lessons from this project:
- Use multi-stakeholder relationships as a tool to ensure that the social and educational aspects of the project are clear to the public;
- Be transparent about the company's role to show that the company is not just doing this to make money;
- Engage local actors to help in the process, they have the influence.
Other topics covered at the event included: the contradictions, limits and challenges of media cover in sustainability, the responsibilities of citizens and organizations in today's media approach, public communication and sustainability education, the Brazilian perspective on sustainability communications, opportunities, and challenges and regulatory limits in sustainability and business communication.