Communicating Sustainability in a Climate of Mistrust - Top 3 Hints to Get it Right
Mistrust is one of the toughest challenges companies face when communicating their sustainability commitments and progress. Skepticism about the real motives of CSR projects is widespread; companies are often believed to be jumping on the sustainability bandwagon for mere reputation or marketing reasons, and accusations (grounded or not) of greenwashing, pinkwashing, or purposewashing follow.
Before exploring how to address mistrust while communicating sustainability programs, however, it’s important to take a step back and agree on a premise: trust results from meeting stakeholders’ expectations. And while it’s the communication function that sets those expectations, it’s the actions of the organization that ultimately fulfill or shatter those very same expectations. This means that the communication function cannot solve a reputation issue generated by a business that is not acting properly, that is not fulfilling its promise.
A second point I believe is crucial to stress here is that the profits generated by a sustainability strategy should by no means belittle the ultimate value or the righteousness of the strategy itself. On the contrary, the beauty of a well-designed sustainability plan is that it generates a win-win situation: it has the power to do good for the society and the environment, while helping a company prosper and, thus, generate more profits that are crucial to expand the workforce, further invest in the community, or even help solve pressing environmental issues.
Now, back to communication: research shows that in 2021 trust levels are reaching an all-time low. So here are three tips to protect your reputation and achieve your sustainability communication objectives during these challenging times:
1) Stay authentically human. Perfection is not of this world, and the public knows it. Acknowledge shortcomings and obstacles in your sustainability journey and communicate transparently showing respect for your audience. Being candid doesn’t mean being naive, but let’s admit it, it can still require a lot of courage. If something didn’t go as planned, say what steps you will take to make it right. Authenticity is key to gaining credibility and respect, and it will pay you off in the long term.
2) Let stakeholders do the talk. Few things are more annoying than self-promotion. A third-party validation might be the best and most effective device you can leverage to have your message believed and to capitalize on your sustainability plan. Partnerships, especially with non-profit organizations and activists, are essential in any successful CSR project as they bring value, expertise, and insightful perspectives into play. Sitting down and developing a collaboration with activists or a reputable NGO is a great way to demonstrate your true commitment to the sustainability cause; not surprisingly, some of the most impactful and laudable sustainability projects result from the collaboration between businesses and some of their (once) fiercest critics. Cherry on the cake: third party validations are not only trust builders but also powerful amplifiers to your message.
3) Show you take sustainability seriously. The recipe for this one might seem a bit more elaborate, but we can break it down into four essential steps. First, integrate sustainability across the whole organization making it the very foundation of the business strategy. Second, adopt and report on widely recognized standards, like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or the UN Global Compact. Third, open up your CSR results to independent audits. And finally, anchor sustainability to your corporate Purpose communicating it as part of the wider business narrative.
Coping with mistrust can feel like a daunting task. Yet, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that businesses today are more trusted than Governments, NGOs, and Media. While this is definitely bad news for public institutions, it could well reflect the increased responsibility that companies are taking on both environmental and societal matters.
Businesses are in fact the only institution seen as both competent and ethical. I suspect expanded sustainable corporate practices are paying off. What does this mean to reputation managers? I bet, an increased expectation for their organizations to fill a void and take a stand on societal, economic, and environmental issues going forward.