Public Relations Meets Sustainability in Practice

Ethical Markets Sustainability News

By Rosalinda Sanquiche

For the Sustainability Movement to be truly sustainable, organizations must walk the talk.  Companies acting consistently with their talk will be rewarded with increased brand value.  But what happens if the professionals tasked with conveying the corporate sustainability message do not know the language?

The October 2011  PRSA conference had one panel on sustainability, “Walk the Walk,” featuring Joe Sibilia of CSRWire, Aman Singh, a CSR journalist and communications strategist, and me, Rosalinda Sanquiche of Ethical Markets Media.  We planned our session as a means to bridge the gap between company public policy and company public relations.  Our intent was to show how a competitive advantage is created through an ethical supply chain, show how journalists spot a PR story where the facts don’t support the claims and demonstrate how a media company balances global reporting and research while maintaining high ethical standards in pursuing partners and advertisers.

The conversation never made it that far.  While the session was well attended, few in the audience were conversant on sustainability issues and how they can convey that information to their customers.  Questions ranged from “what is the value of sustainability reporting” to “how can PR departments use the messaging to persuade investors?”

Those convinced of the need to convey their companies’ sustainability efforts asked what journalists, informed consumers and potential investors were looking for in reporting.   Questioners didn’t use the term greenwashing, but that is what they were asking – “how do we avoid being perceived as greenwashing?”  That the audience wasn’t able to articulate their questions in the language of sustainability let the panelists know that there is a gap in discourse communities.  In answering these questions, for example, we panelists explained how companies will be acknowledged for disclosing their ethical supply chain, and journalists will give greater legitimacy to authentic transparency.

Aman Singh is an IEMA-certified CSR Practitioner, trained in GRI reporting and UNGC guidelines.  Her  research for the Weinreb Group shows that few Chief Sustainability Officers in publically traded companies rise from research or sustainability departments and many rose from external facing roles in PR, marketing and external affairs.  In other words, there is a corporate assumption that sustainability is more about looking good than doing good.  Consequently, there is a steep learning curb for CSOs and their staff to understand their own company’s sustainability efforts and articulate that for the public.

As lead author of the  Green Transition Scoreboard® annual report, I brought to the panel expertise in tracking investments in the growing green economy.  I explained that there is an important role for media in accurately reporting corporate strides toward sustainability.  I told the audience what I and journalists are looking for in authentic CSR reports: baseline information, verifiable improvements and planning for the future.

Joe Sibilia is founder and CEO of  Meadowbrook Lane Capital, a self-described socially responsible/sustainable investment bank, and president of CSRwire which distributes corporate socially responsible news and reports to journalists, analysts, investors and academics.  Joe took the opportunity to bring in Occupy Wall Street as a point of discussion.  The audience had a hard time understanding the relevance of the movement to their role in PR.

The panel took the opportunity to explain that protestors are identifying those corporations whose practices are unsustainable.  The protestors are teaching mainstream media and the public the language of sustainability.  This is an opportunity for PR to convey their companies’ true efforts toward CSR.

For public relations professionals, it is important that they know how to create an active environment of measuring words and deeds within their organization, to examine the challenges in comparing words and deeds and to make the connection between sustainability and increased brand value.

If nothing else, the interaction of our panel with the session audience and PRSA participants at large demonstrates that there is enormous need and opportunity to train PR professionals in the language of sustainability.  How are they expected to convey corporate social responsibility to the public without understanding the basic concepts of sustainability or the motivations of their own companies?  Clearly more and better education on global sustainability issues and best practices of corporations is a pressing need.