Communicating CSR/Sustainability Through Speaking Activity

A key element of any initiative to communicate a company’s corporate social responsibility goals and activities, especially in the sustainability or green sector, is an aggressive, proactive executive visibility speaking program. There are several top-tier forums worldwide that focus on CSR/sustainability topics and that can provide a quality platform from which CEOs can share their thought-leadership vision in this increasingly important area of business activity.   Following are nine factors that are among the most important in organizing or enhancing an executive visibility speaking program, based on Catchpole’s more than 20 years of experience in specializing exclusively in this area of practice.

Factor #1: Is your company’s business model compatible with an executive visibility program?
Honest assessment is essential to an executive visibility program’s success. The first item to assess is whether or not your business should even have a program. For example, you need to address whether your company has senior executives who are proven, effective speakers; and, if so, whether or not these executives have the time to prepare for and participate in multiple engagements during the year. While speaker training can help most executives to become better speakers, there is no resource that can create more time in an executive’s schedule. To help make this core decision, examine the speaking activity of competitor company executives—if they are speaking frequently, this may strengthen the case for your executives to do so as well.

Finally, you may have the speakers and they may have the time to speak, but does your company have a unique, compelling message that will impress conference organizers and resonate with your target audiences, including in the CSR/sustainability sector? If the answer is not an immediate “yes,” then you must ask:  Can one be created?  If not, you should re-consider having a program.

Factor #2: How should this program integrate with your other corporate communications activity?
Executive visibility programs cannot stand alone, any more than any other corporate communications activity. This is especially true in the CSR/sustainability sector, where words must be resolutely supported by concrete actions and demonstrably successful, impactful outcomes.

One best practice is to establish an events council with member representatives from each business unit, as well as the corporate offices, to discuss event participation on a regular basis from a strategic perspective. Among other tasks, this group should identify the events that are most important to the company as a whole, including in CSR/sustainability and how to obtain maximum impact from them through creation of a master plan for each.

Factor #3: Which executives should participate in the program?
In step #1, you identified the most proven and effective executive speakers within the company.  If there are no candidates to match this description, consider contracting a speaker training expert. Be brutally frank. Do not try to gloss over any deficiencies in speaker capability. Conference organizers today are increasingly insisting on demonstrable evidence of a speaker’s ability, especially at high-level executive forums.  They want a video recording of the executive in action before a live audience; or they want a video posted on YouTube.  As a CSR/sustainability event organizer told us: “We view our stage as being a very valuable piece of real estate and we don’t schedule any speakers who are strangers to us.”

Factor #4: What roles should executive speakers fulfill?
Once your executive speaker pool is assembled, you must identify the different speaking roles that executive speakers should fulfill—understanding that there is more than one role or persona that an individual executive can assume in his or her public appearances.  Among the potential roles for a CEO speaker: industry visionary; management best practices thought leader; good corporate citizen; sustainability advocate; public policy activist; or enlightened futurist.

One of the most important roles for executives to fulfill is that of chief spokesperson for the company as a responsible corporate citizen. The social contract for businesses today is evolving and for most large companies this means that they must not only consider shareholders and employees as their primary stakeholders, but also consider the concerns of consumers, media, potential employees (e.g., business students), and government. Corporate citizenship is all about reputation building and, as a result, is becoming a key evolving area for companies to differentiate themselves, including in the area of sustainability activities.

Factor #5: Do you have a unique corporate message set, and can the principal players articulate these messages?
Many companies will say they want an executive visibility speaker program because of a goal to establish themselves as thought leaders. But to do this, the company must have viable thoughts that genuinely lead, such as, where will your market or profession be in five years, and what are the trends and ideas that are going to drive that evolution? The more you can answer these questions and incorporate them into executive presentations, the more robust and successful your program will be. 

The same holds true of other roles an executive speaker can fulfill. You should read up on what other executive speakers are discussing in publications such as Vital Speeches of the Day.  Then come up with something different, substantial and original. Another option is to have the executive tell his or her own story and lessons learned in his or her personal and professional life. Or the speaker can tell the company story, if there is drama and instruction that others can learn from, in what the company has achieved.

Factor #6: What audiences are most interested in your messages? 
Actually, this question works two ways:  What audiences want to hear what your executives have to say, including in the CSR/sustainability space? Also, what do the audiences you want to reach want to hear about most?  The messages that your executives want to deliver must address real-world concerns of the target audience, whatever role the executive is adopting (see #4). Similarly, when you identify audiences that you want to pro-actively target, a first step is to research and identify their core concerns.

Factor #7: Which forums and organizations have the best-proven record for attracting these audiences? 
Whenever there is a hot new business-related topic on the horizon, such as corporate sustainability practices, there are immediately dozens of new conferences that spring up to capture this interest. How do you determine which are the good ones?

Begin by creating a checklist against which you can measure the appeal of each individual event under consideration. The first entry on the list should be audience: Does the event actually deliver the kind of audience that you want and in the numbers that meet your standard?  Ask the organizers for demographic detail—previous attendee company names and titles. If they fail to provide, be very suspicious. Other items on your checklist should be viability of the producing organization, the organizer’s track record in producing other successful events, the event’s geographic location, stature of previous speakers and financial participation requirements.

Factor #8: How can you secure high-quality speaking engagements for your executives at these forums?
Conferences are a business, and the bottom line objective for event organizers is a simple one:  happy attendees. The more happy attendees they have, the more successful the conference.  What factors contribute to making conference attendees happy? For most, it is learning something that they can put to immediate use in their professional or personal lives.

That, in a nutshell, is how conference producers spend their time: identifying topics and recruiting speakers that will help create lots of happy attendees.  Your job is to develop executive speakers and messaging topics so that you can add value by helping conference producers to achieve this goal.

Another job is for you to determine when conference organizers begin their agenda planning cycle, so that you can submit a proposal in the very early stages. Proposals submitted near or past the deadline date may be too late to secure an engagement, no matter how good the speaker and topic.

A final key to success is maintaining flexibility. First, you must realize that not everyone can keynote.  If you have an executive speaker who says “I only want to do standalone keynotes,” please educate him or her to the fact that the trend in executive visibility forums is toward highly interactive, unscripted roundtable discussions and away from the traditional PowerPoint-driven solo keynotes.  Again, the reasons are those “happy attendees” – attendees who say they are tired of hearing canned presentations; they prefer to listen to multiple speakers in a roundtable format.

Factor #9: How do you achieve the best outcomes from each engagement secured?
Any executive speaking engagement should be viewed as an integrated marketing opportunity, and not as a standalone activity.  The overriding consideration with each engagement should be: 
How can our company get the most return on our investment from participation in this opportunity? Potential activities around the engagement can include product marketing teams devising informational initiatives, PR staff arranging media interviews with executive speakers and sales managers ensuring that customers are invited to attend.

Moreover, realize that the job of integration is not completed once the engagement is finished.  You can extend the presentation’s impact afterwards by repurposing a presentation text as a white paper or bylined editorial piece for the business or trade press.  If it was a roundtable discussion, distribute a podcast through your Web site.  Also, the company’s blog can reference the engagement and solicit feedback from attendees and others.

This article was written by Terry Catchpole, chairman and chief executive officer for The Catchpole Corporation, which provides executive and corporate visibility strategies for companies in all markets. This article appears in the upcoming PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility/Green PR, Volume 3. To find out more information about the guidebook or order it, please go to