This essay won PRCA APAC's 2022 Future Leader competition.
It answered the question: What role do in-house, and agency professionals play in sustainability communications? Does the burden of ensuring authenticity fall on the communications team?
Whether you use the term sustainability, corporate social responsibility, purpose-driven or Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) (the list goes on), it is increasingly common for corporations to consider factors beyond shareholder returns when they make decisions.
Take investments. Inflows into “sustainable funds”, for example, rose from $5 billion in 2018 to nearly $70 billion in 2021.
Why? Two core reasons.
So we are seeing sustainability become a strong area of focus and investment beyond the financial community, going mainstream across multiple sectors.
But it’s not enough to talk the talk on sustainability, companies must walk the walk.
Failing to be authentic (which I define as being true or real), sometimes labelled greenwashing, can mislead stakeholders and consumers, undermine positive efforts to address sustainability and carries real legal and reputational risks.
Let’s explore an example. The Australian regulator ASIC is reviewing listed entities, super funds and managed funds in relation to environmentally friendly or 'green' claims, following concern they may be misleading. Just this week it took it took its first action, calling into question the authenticity of claims made by the company in question. The company was fined “for alleged false or misleading sustainability-related statements made to the market”. The company communicated one thing but was found to be doing another – the very opposite of authenticity.
This is just the latest scenario which begs the question, what role do in-house and agency professionals play in sustainability communications?
The burden of ensuring authentic sustainability claims does not currently rest with communicators. But effective professionals are more than a mouthpiece, and by shaping sustainability efforts before they hit the headlines we play an evolving role helping organisations do sustainability better.
Given the opportunity, today’s communication professionals possess the skills and experience to support efforts at several stages of a company’s sustainability journey.
- Leading on engagement: Sustainability is about engaging with internal and external stakeholders on the issues that matter to them most, and working out how to tackle these issues to the mutual benefit of the business, people and planet. Stakeholder engagement is at its very core – that’s why some call it stakeholder capitalism. Communicators are experts at building and leading engagement across groups to create the lasting relationships that are essential for successful sustainability strategies.
- Keeping anchored to purpose and strategy: Sustainability efforts should be anchored to a company’s purpose and integrated into business strategies, so they are more likely to stay on track and become embedded into decision making. As strategic thinkers and excellent facilitators, we are well placed to support integration.
- Spreading the word: We are skilled storytellers who bring strategic thinking to the promotion of sustainability efforts and impacts. Our creative approach helps cut through clutter in a way that connects with the audience. Done openly and honestly (more on that later), promoting sustainability helps a business attract talent and partners.
- Protecting against reputational risk: Communicators understand the bigger picture, meaning we bring a view of potential issues and can help companies prepare for potential scenarios – a must when communicating sustainability given the complexity and pace of the landscape.
- Delivering lasting change: Earning commitment from employees then enabling them to play a role in a company’s sustainability journey is key to driving lasting change. As employee engagement leads, communications should be in the room to shape change strategies.
While we can (and should) be authentic in way we work, at the end of the day the sustainability actions a business takes are decided by leaders and the Board.
Which isn’t to say we are powerless. The key is to tread the line between going too far and not going far enough. We can’t tell a Board how to run the business, but we can influence internal decision makers to commit to sustainability. And we must avoid superficial approaches when playing our role.
If communicators are empowered to support sustainability in more meaningful ways, how will the burden of ensuring authenticity shift?
For decades PR professionals have been calling for “a seat at the C-suite table” to better manage risk and reputation. A seat at that table means an ability to influence strategy, not simply communicate a strategy already set, especially one which ignores or pays lip-service to sustainability.
Is our new frontier ensuring we are more than a mouthpiece for sustainability, in all its guises?
All signs point to yes, but the more interesting question is whether, in asking for a seat at the table, are we prepared to take on a greater weight of responsibility for authenticity and seek to influence strategy to be authentically sustainable?
That said, we cannot assume to cover all sustainability bases just because we have certain skills. The key is to stand shoulder to shoulder with sustainability experts. Sustainability is complex and will likely remain so. It requires specialist sector knowledge and rigorous reporting and measurement.
The role of communications will continue to evolve as the focus on corporate sustainability and its link to reputation intensifies.
As sustainability becomes a central part of what companies do and therefore communicate, while greenwashing becomes near on impossible, the challenge will be for in-house and agency professionals to differentiate their company’s approach from others. From this perspective, authenticity will remain a challenge but become less about credibility and more about demonstrating meaning.
At the same time, sustainability issues such as climate change or diversity and inclusion will rise in importance and core communications skills of adaptability and sound-judgement will become critical.
The most powerful argument for our role is to bring to the decision makers our insight to how stakeholders view sustainability, and gain a commitment to incorporate these insights into how the business adapts strategy to support long term profitability beyond box ticking or self-service.
 Needless to say, there are countless companies doing sustainability well. For every incongruent corporate sponsorship there are examples of corporations making a positive difference to people and planet
 Already, top asset management funds such are making investment decisions based on ESG considerations. There are myriad investor-led calls for disclosure (https://senateshj.com.au/perspective/esg-why-now/)
 Blockchain and other technologies will make false sustainability claims near on impossible (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/using-blockchain-to-make-sure-green-pledges-arent-greenwash-a-new-initiative-by-the-world-economic-forums-young-leaders/).