SUSTAINABILITY PR: AN OVERVIEW OF EMERGING PRACTICE

By Adile Iroajugh

Why Sustainability PR

The multiple crises confronting us today are being addressed separately, even though they are inter-related and require an integrated approach. Climate change, drought and desertification are being addressed by the ministries, almost as if they were an environmental issue.

The financial crisis is being addressed by finance ministries, as if it were purely an economic question. The food for crisis is being addressed by ministries of agriculture as if they had exclusive capability for food supply. Combating violent extremism and terrorism is being addressed as exclusive responsibility of the defence ministry. The world’s need for clean and safe water is seen as exclusive responsibility of the ministries of water resources. None of these crises is isolated. The 17th agenda of the global sustainable Development Goals which is ‘‘strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing global partnership for sustainable development’ aptly underscores the importance of strategic engagement, collaboration and communication, a core public relation strategy, in sustainable development implementation. Public relation officials should be active drivers for the renewed global movement for change. Contemporary public relation practice should strive on ‘impact relations’. The focus should be how to use their work and expertise in helping businesses, NGOs and governments deliver values, not just financially – but socially, environmentally and ethically. This is the new quadruple bottom-line and the baseline for an emerging practice – ‘‘Sustainability PR’’.

Understanding Sustainability

It has been said that the concept of sustainability was invented to address imminent global crisis. Peter Weeme, president of Vancouver-based sustainability consulting firm Junxion Strategy, observed that ‘‘sustainability comes from the perfect storm of diminishing resources, climate change, global inequality and decelerating global development. It is more than being green. Sustainability captures whole sets of values, issues and processes that companies, NGOs, and governments must address to ensure delivery of their environmental, social and economic objectives’’. He sees sustainability as a set of contemporary global crisis that required not only effective crisis communication strategy – which is a core responsibility of the contemporary public relation practice.

The 1987 United Nations report on Environment – ‘Our Common Future’ – defines sustainability as ‘‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their need’’As an experienced PR professional, I have to come to the realization that focusing my professional advice and solution on sustainable future is no longer a matter of compliance. It’s a question of survival for my practice and the business I serve.

The United States Environmental Protections Agency, defining sustainability, observed that: ‘‘everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in harmony to support present and future generations’’.

Sustainability PR is therefore, communication for a better world. It will serve as a bridge between the old and the new by a committing to effective storytelling and contents that’s provocative, original, irresistible and impactful.

Growing Need for Sustainability PR

It is a common trend today for both multinationals and local companies to use their influence to improve social and environmental well-being. This has made sustainability PR or impact relations an idea whose time has come. In an era when corporate trust remains depressingly and perhaps deservedly low, one clear strategy for speaking effectively and sustainability PR – a practice of positive change management and impact relations.

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Sustainability PR makes issues focused communications a pivot in business, social and environmental innovation. It is the practice of widely sharing messages, stories and ideas that result in positive impact. It strives on transparent, authentic, meaningful and resonant communications to inspire stakeholders with substantive commitment to social, environmental and ethical responsibility. Impact relations are a new value system for measuring communications effectiveness beyond traditional media metrics.

As sustainability PR expert and impact relations enthusiast, I believe no story is worth telling unless it has positive impact. Impact relations build support for social and environmental sustainability, from climate change legislation to sustainable consumption and green marketing. Many companies are already leading the way in transforming our society and environment for the better, but the challenge is how to scale up and bring businesses on board? This is the challenge for sustainability PR professionals – to reach cross-sector stakeholders with good story, to help companies share only authentic story that has measurable impact in the communities where they are building brand loyalty.

 A more dynamic role for the PR profession

The emergence of sustainability PR has created a more dynamic role for the PR professional as an agent to change rather than to gloss up reputations. It has being noted that the impact of a company’s reputation on its license to operate may be either positive or negative, but it is stakeholder expectation or perception that drives reputation. As such, communicating evidence of activity in CSR and sustainability is becoming central to a company’s license to operate.

For the practitioner, it is said that focusing on sustainability can launch more substantive roles with companies and clients. It elevates traditional PR functions and puts the communication experts squarely in areas of C-suite-level operational change and long-term risk management. And unlike other PR campaigns in which you might be begging for evidence that there is substance to the claims, ‘‘prove it’’ is a basic mantra of sustainability communications.

Here are some dynamic roles expected of the PR professional

Building trust

There is much talk about the need for closer partnership and collaboration in the implementation of the sustainable development goals. PR could be employed to pay more active role in building trust, facilitating collaborations to effect desired change.

Impact Assessments

Sustainability PR advisors are experts in helping companies better understand the changing context within which they operate. They have capability to design cutting-edge strategies for measuring and communicating clients’ social and environmental impacts in their campaigns; and auditing workplace wellness performance; and transparency when reporting on sustainability issues.

Bottom line, sustainability PR experts know the importance of making an honest assessment of all risk factors, leveraging insights from employees, stakeholders and even critics to create or improve sustainability communication strategy

 Stakeholder Engagements

Sustainability PR professionals are experts in engaging stakeholders at every level, both internal and external. In an era of growing expectation for collaborative leadership to address the big global challenges and opportunities brought to us through the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, the next few years represent a critical window of opportunity for PR professionals who understand the new engagement era. The UN-Sustainable development goals is fundamentally shifting how businesses, NGOs and government engage with their consumers, stakeholders and encouraging them to rethink how they incorporate sustainability into long-term growth and innovation planning.

Implementation Support

Sustainability PR experts have the unique implementation intervention roles to help companies and government achieve internal buy-in for their sustainability ambitions and build accountability for performance, from the leaders to the led.

Sustainability PR is becoming a growing source of confidence for investors and, through it, commitment to promote behaviours and policies that address long-term risks.

 Reporting and Communications

Sustainability PR professionals are experts in helping companies disclose sustainability performance and create reporting and communication approaches that show a sustainability commitment to stakeholders at every level. Businesses are increasingly seeking to communicate their goals and achievements consistently with the sustainable development goals in their sustainability reports and overall company and executive communication. Today’s sustainability conscious investors are not just examining companies’ balance sheets anymore; they are looking for proof of social environmental and ethical investment. Sustainability PR experts are committed to helping organisation weave sustainability principles into their annual reports.

 Who Needs Sustainability PR

Graham Sprigg, managing director of UK-based IMS Consulting once stated that ‘‘many organisations, including private, public and NGOs are now realising that their efforts and achievements in the field of sustainability need to be communicated more effectively’’. He observed that sustainability has moved past merely being a trend to becoming a cultural shift. All organisations will need to realise that sustainability is just not a desired activity but a necessary strategy specifically when developing communication campaign strategies.

From the foregoing, sustainability is now a central factor to effective business management. Its brand acceptance values is improving business marginal profits and mitigating the negative impacts of corporate behaviour on the community and the planet.

Many organisations are now realising that they need societal approval, or what experts would call, ‘societal licence’’ such as the support or consent of stakeholders in order to operate effectively.

Consequently, progress on sustainability means increasing persuasion on multinationals and local manufacturers to change their production and supply processes. It means persuading consumers to choose goods that do more good or less harm to our planet. It also means putting pressure on governments and policy makers to strengthen global partnership and regulate ethically for sustainable development.

Lastly, the increasing demand on organisations, NGOs, development partners and government to work in partnership with some strange bedfellows is also increasing demands for sustainability PR by organisations, especially organisation that need to facilitate actions or change attitudes of key stakeholders that can have the biggest impact on their sustainability objectives.

The Future of Sustainability PR Practice

Sustainability PR is one of the best things to happen to contemporary public relations practice. It has positioned the public relations practice as a change agent. Contemporary public relations professionals must be consistent in advocating for truth and honesty; and maintaining a strong focus on integrity and other core ethical values.

Public relations have a critical role in shaping a new world and we can accomplish that through a greater focus on impact relations and communications.

Practitioners should understand and communicate the enormous benefits of sustainability to both organisation and society. Once we understand those social, environmental and ethical demands on business and potency of strategic public relations efforts, we can get a glimpse at the role of sustainability in the future of businesses and the PR practices.

As a public relation practitioner who is also a social change advocate, I understand the power of sustainability PR from a future perspective. I consider social, environmental and ethical impact of my decisions, advice and actions owing to my own personal investment of time and efforts in support of the sustainability movement. In dealing with organisation or buying products, I now look out for certain words such as ‘’environment friendly’’ or ‘recycle’ on the organization’s profile or product labels to suit my new lifestyle.

Concluding, developments such as Paris climate change agreement have cemented the importance of sustainability. The agreement is today the most ambitious deal that ever received implementation consent of every country’s leadership because of the dire need to protect the planet. The agreement simply calls for a change in behaviour. I have changed my behaviour; many other individuals have become socially and environmentally conscious by selecting more sustainable options. Sustainability is no longer a trend, or just a business manoeuvre; it is a necessity to effectively run a business in this world and public relation must be seen driving that future.

The tasks which are set for us now, as co-creators of the global civilization is that of doing no harm, of using the national resource of our energy and creativity for the common good, and of uplifting the poor in whatever we can. These are the moral imperatives of this time, and PR professionals should incorporate these mandates in the agendas they are promoting.

Reference:

  1. The Art of Original Thinking–The Making of a Thought Leader – By Jan Phillips Published by 9th Element Press – 2006 – USA.
  2. https://www.epa.gov/sustainability/learn-about-sustainability
  3. Brundtland Report, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development
  4. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2017/goal-17/
  5. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
  6. https://www.press.farm/emerging-trends-modern-public-relations/

 

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