Engaging stakeholders, internal and external, requires clever targeted messages that are relevant and interesting

Communications in the corporate responsibility field can be fraught with misunderstanding. Practitioners know how important authentic, well-targeted messages and dialogue are for deepening awareness and performance. But company stakeholders are often inclined to see such messaging as little more than cynical corporate spin.

Perhaps this scepticism is deserved, given early forays into CR-related reporting and marketing. There are signs, though, that the days of cherry-picked good-news stories and diversionary images of butterflies and happy villagers are behind us.

But what is successful corporate responsibility communication today – and how is it done? We spoke to leading practitioners to learn about how good comms is changing, and what it takes to do it well.

More CR, less comms

Perhaps the most striking trend presently is for practitioners to view communications less as an external conduit for credibility and more as a means to embed their broader corporate responsibility agenda.

Jan-Willem Vosmeer, CSR manager at brewing giant Heineken, describes the process of creating and implementing the company’s sustainability strategy, Brewing a Better Future: “Communications is key, not only for external stakeholders, but especially for internal ones. Our employees need to be engaged in the journey, so they know what it’s about and they know what their role is. And it’s not just talking about sustainability, but also integrating it in their targets and performance plans.”

Similarly, Filippo Bettini, head of sustainability and risk governance at tyre manufacturer Pirelli, emphasises how communications supports CR goals, not vice versa: “We see sustainability as a tool to integrate, support and protect our business activities on a long-term timeframe. Taking this as the starting point, then, communications on sustainability should address the added value of responsible management for each of our stakeholders.”

Adam Elman, head of delivery – Plan A and sustainable business for retailer Marks & Spencer agrees: “We’ve seen a lot of change, and continue to see it, driven by our Plan A agenda.” Plan A is Marks & Spencer’s comprehensive sustainability integration strategy.

Elman says that the launch of Plan A in 2007 raised expectations about what the company was doing, which stimulated interest from various stakeholders. “Previously, a lot of our communications focused on NGO and opinion former communities, [but] over the years we saw more and more interest from investors, customers and others. So the number of interested stakeholder audiences is wider, and increasingly not sitting to one side of our business, but part and parcel of our business.”

Beyond the comms department

One consequence of the drive to use communications to embed sustainable business and corporate responsibility has been to take it beyond the sole responsibility of the corporate communications department. More and more companies are moving beyond tightly controlled, centralised messaging to external audiences. They are now involving employees across the whole of the business, to share and reinforce their corporate responsibility messages.

According to Marks and Spencer’s Elman: “Our communications effort definitely rolls out beyond the communications department, to our employees in the various business functions – these are the people who know what’s going on and are leading the work, engaging with the relevant stakeholders. They’re much better placed to drive the communications than the comms department.”

Vosmeer from Heineken echoes this: “In the past, people thought that if you’re part of the corporate sustainability department, that means you actually carry out all the sustainability work yourselves. We coordinate the sustainability programme, but in the end, it should be carried out by the various functions. The international head office is one part of our business, of course, but in the end it’s the local businesses that really make it happen.”

Find the right message

Leading practitioners are speaking more and more about how they work to make sure their messages are best designed to serve the needs of the audiences they most want to reach. Some are clearly recognising the increasing interest in corporate responsibility coming from investors and financial markets.

Pirelli’s Bettini is clear on the benefits of establishing new methods of communicating with stakeholders. “We set up a new communications model to close a gap with investors. We wanted to be able to answer questions such as: do we gain from sustainability and does the investor gain from sustainability?”

So Pirelli adopted a value-driver model to use the same language and concepts familiar to investors – both mainstream and SRI – to tell their story. “Now we talk about revenue growth, return on capital and risk management associated with sustainability. We try to adapt our communications using the words and topics that are used solidly and consistently for investors,” Bettini says.

One result of the role of communications in embedding CR more broadly has been to stimulate more and better engagement with business audiences – such as, in Marks & Spencer’s case, suppliers.

Elman highlights the company’s annual supplier conference in June, when suppliers get together for one day solely to talk about Plan A and sustainability. “In 2013, 1,200 people got together, the majority of them suppliers, but we also involved colleagues around the business, NGOs, government representatives, a whole array of stakeholders. Everyone heard the same headline messages, but then groups split into divisions such as food, clothing and property supply, as well as separate sessions for opinion formers.”

The key for Marks & Spencer is trying to get real collaboration around Plan A, Elman stresses. “We want to get others involved. We’ve shown an increasingly strong business case including a £135m net benefit to us in 2012. We want others to come along on the journey and understand how it makes us a stronger, more robust business.”

Engage consumers

But it’s consumers that represent the audience many businesses most want to understand when it comes to engagement with sustainability issues. While opinions range as to whether consumers are genuinely interested and able to engage, leading companies nevertheless see real opportunity in deepening consumers’ awareness and empowerment, through their brands.

According to Heineken’s Vosmeer, the company’s Brewing a Better Future programme aims to improve attitudes to responsible drinking. “We are looking at how we can use our brand platform to influence consumer behaviour.”

The company has promoted an advert titled “Sunrise belongs to moderate drinkers”. This is a Heineken commercial involving a main character refusing a beer but taking a bottle of water, in order to stay in control for the rest of the evening. Vosmeer says that Heineken is thinking about how the brand can follow up to connect with consumers about responsible consumption. Importantly, it the messages need to be cool.

“It’s much better to work to make the behaviour change aspirational, than to lecture people about not drinking and staying in control. Using our brand platform to connect with consumers is one way for us as a company to raise awareness of how we can each play our role with regard to our material issues”

For Pirelli, as a B2B2C company, empowering consumers with data and information they can use is critical.

Bettini says: “We have recently developed communications aimed directly at our end user with the goal of highlighting the value and benefits from sustainability. With increased attention in the automotive sector to sustainable mobility, we need to give data and figures – not just make statements – about reduction of impacts related to production and use of our tyres.”

Pirelli aims to give information that reflects the complete life cycle of products, such as data on CO2 emissions and energy consumption for drivers. The company is trying to transform numbers that sometimes don’t mean much to the ordinary consumer, translating those into direct benefits. “We are very committed to leverage environmental information to help people make better choices,” Bettini says.

The latest technology may also be helping companies engage consumers’ brains and passions more effectively.

Marks and Spencer’s Elman says the company has used QR codes in stores and on products, to take customers to deeper stories of interest to them. He highlights a personal example: “I have a QR code inside my M&S suit, which is made from organic wool, the lining from recycled plastic bottles, the canvas from recycled polyester, reclaimed buttons and reclaimed pocket fabric.”

A QR code can link consumers with the story behind the garment, Elman argues. Marks & Spencer is rolling out QR codes in store to help customers “find out about different things of interest to them. We’re often limited in how much space we’ve got within the shop or on the product for content – this technology enables customers to get more content they’re interested in.”

Reporting still right  

In spite of the evolution sweeping through corporate communications generally, practitioners still advocate for continued improvement in sustainability reporting. It’s not necessarily a single, stand-alone document, anymore, though. At Heineken, according to Vosmeer, there is a main global report and reporting cycle, but a group of nearly 40 key operating companies are also required to produce their own local reports as well, “to create transparency at all levels”.

Marks & Spencer still publishes an annual sustainability report. As Elman says: “It provides a snapshot in time on how we’re doing, and it’s audited – it’s one single place people can go to for understanding about our priorities and progress.”

M&S also has an online version, which is readable on smart phones. “We still see a need for the main, assured sustainability report, but we’re supplementing it with ongoing, more targeted information of interest to stakeholders.”

The company is involved in the International Integrated Reporting Council pilot programme. “We support the principle of bringing together corporate responsibility and financial reporting – and integrated reporting is clearly about annual reports and how they capture that single moment in time,” Elman says.

But there is considerable interest in shifting the traditional backwards-focus of sustainability reporting, to give a greater sense of trajectory.

Bettini says: “In the past we [at Pirelli] were more focused on data having to do with achievements and milestones, but now we are more committed to focusing in on what our promise and commitment should be. We’re launching a new approach for Pirelli Group for 2017-2020, which, very importantly, gives our stakeholders the sense that this is part of a much larger project.”

A successful communications strategy goes well beyond single documents, campaigns or events, of course. “You also need a governance system that supports it, which is a challenge for most companies,” Vosmeer says. “Through our corporate affairs committee, led by the CEO, we can be sure our sustainability message is supported and led at the top.”

communications  stakeholder engagement  sustainable business 

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