Developing and Implementing Effective CSR/Sustainability Programs That Have Value and Impact

Corporate communications professionals usually play a key role in the rollout of corporate change initiatives including mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, new visions and strategic imperatives. It is not surprising, therefore, that they are key players in the rollout of sustainability programs. However, there are several ways in which professional communicators can bring their skills and internal and external networks to the process of developing and implementing CSR efforts.

Following are five components necessary to unlock the full potential of a sustainability/CSR program that is integrated into the business model:

•    Integration of the program within the overall strategy. Contrary to popular criticism of companies, most organizations do not managing their operations on a quarterly or yearly basis. Successful companies adhere to long-term strategy maps that divide into four or five categories such as financial, operational, sales and culture imperatives. Within each of these categories, imperatives are defined and assigned to operating units. In order to be an integral part of the company strategy, the CSR program must be integrated as appropriate into the imperatives.

Professional communicators who have played a key role in defining the language, presentation and the communications around the vision are well positioned and qualified to play a key role. The emphasis here is on appropriateness; and to overcome the inclination to over promise or justify the CSR program as the magic bullet that addresses every strategy.

•    Compatibility with the day-to-day reality. At the same time, many employees face daily realities, such as customer expectations, which sometimes appear to conflict with corporate directives. Failing to address and respond to these real or perceived incompatibilities is a key reason why so many corporate initiatives fail. Communicators are in a key position to use their skills, networks and established credibility at all levels within the company to assist in the development of the CSR program itself, as well as designing and implementing a successful communications strategy that clearly communicates how the new program can and will work to internal audiences. The larger and more decentralized the company, the harder it may be develop a turnkey solution that works in all operating settings. 

•    Empowering and engaging employees at all levels in the organization. As with any culture defining effort, a truly integrated CSR/green program requires the individual buy-in and empowerment of everyone in the company as well as changes in processes and procedures. It cannot rely on the work of a central “green team” to carry the long-term ball for the organization. Everyone has to participate if it is to become part of the corporate culture. Otherwise employees may, intentionally or unwittingly compromise the effort.

Corporate communicators are in a position to play a key role in identifying and addressing those concerns that are real and offering ways to overcome those that are based on resistance to change. Several years ago I watched in dismay as one company replaced several incompatible accounting systems with a single solution. To overcome initial resistance, management determined that rather than explain the benefits to employees, they would instead customize the program so that those responsible for keying in data would not have to learn a new input screen. The result was a project that was over budget and took far longer than anticipated.

•    Measureable, credible results. Whether through independent third party certifications, awards, or reporting using trusted criteria, the public is skeptical of unsubstantiated environmental claims, as are employees. In some cases it is easy to point to environmental impacts—wildlife habitats set aside are visible examples within a community that a company and its employees can see for themselves. But in some cases, it is harder because you are quantifying what did not happen— energy saved, trees that were not cut down and water that was not used.

•    Engage stakeholders throughout the process. Engaging people rather than speaking “to” them is a fundamental change in how successful companies must communicate with both internal and external audiences. Communicators must stand as staunch advocates for using new technologies and taking advantage of rather than fearing the universal and free-flowing nature of the Internet and the various social media. The world of communications has changed, with the rise of social media and “citizen journalists” who, despite the fact that they may or may not adhere to the same standards and practices as professional journalists, have an increasing prevalence and influence. Companies that wish to build, maintain or defend their reputations and brand equity have no choice but to join the dialogue, bringing authenticity and transparency to the conversation. 

Progressive companies have recognized the true power of the stakeholder engagement and have made the transition, revising their strategy for traditional communications tools (including meetings, presentations, even media interviews and the Internet) not as vehicles to provide information, but as a forums for dialogue, seeing each as an unparalleled opportunity to tap into, and respond when appropriate, to what is being said about their enterprise.

To meet these challenges, corporate communications professionals can use their same tactical skills but must modify their strategies refining not only the content but also the structure of all manner of communications vehicles including Web sites, annual reports, executive speeches and presentations.  They must shift their overall strategy to effectively foster, encourage and facilitate dialogue.

Today’s CSR versus Your Mother’s CSR
One of the key differences between sustainability efforts today and the environmental efforts of the past is the emphasis on net (or multiple) gains. The value of leveraging the power of capitalism and business to produce environmental gains can sometimes be a hard message to communicate to people who adamantly and passionately believe that any program that is presented as environmental is somehow sullied if it has any other results, particularly economic benefits. For these people, even initiatives to reduce the use of energy and natural resources, such as raw materials and water, are therefore not “real” environmental initiatives. As much as we might disagree, these voices will find a forum to be heard and it is far better to serve as the host of the dialogue and know what is being said rather than pretend that it is not happening.
By allowing professional communicators to contribute their skills to each of the five elements outlined above, a CSR program in almost assured of a successful implementation. Failure to do so will result in a program that will have limited effectiveness.

This article is excerpted from PR News' Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR. It was authored by John Friedman, senior director of PR for Sodexo, Inc. and has more than 20 years' experience in internal and external communications and a decade in corporate responsibility and sustainability. He is also a co-founder and serves as chair of the board of directors for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington.