Launching and Communicating Successful CSR and Sustainability Strategies

Given how hot CSR and going green have become in the corporate mindset, communicating initiatives inspired by one or the other have become commonplace. Or, to quote Liz Gorman, vice president of corporate responsibility for Cone, Inc: "The rush to green is on and now it's how fast can companies respond."

Citing recent Cone survey findings and case studies, Gorman is a virtual encyclopedia when it comes to CSR/green matters. With the media capitalizing on the ongoing public dialogue on global warming, there has been a strong trickle-down effect when it comes to companies assessing their environmental responsibilities. According to Gorman, "93% of companies surveyed by Cone believes companies have an [obligation] to uphold the environment...One third of companies surveyed this year revealed a heightened interest in the environment as opposed to a year ago."

Other important statistics cited by Gorman:

  • One-third of employees surveyed are more inclined to work for a green company.

  • 92% of young professionals on Monster Track say they are more inclined to work for an environmentally friendly company.

As a sign of the times, "eco-friendly products are popping up everywhere," says Gorman. "I remember having a discussion with my clients a few years ago whether people would buy these products. At that time, eco-products were expensive and their quality was perceived to be inferior. Today 80% of American consumers are reporting an interest in buying products from companies perceived as environmentally responsible."

According to Gorman, there's a pointed difference between good green marketing campaigns and bad ones. Diesel, for instance, launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign in which models were seen posing provocatively in a global-warming setting. The reaction to the irreverence was met with protest by activist groups who denounced the campaign for its "greenwashing." (Greenwashing has the same meaning as whitewashing, except it's applied to an environmental context.) "If you're not walking your talk, you are quickly found out," says Gorman. "The lesson learned is that you are trying to represent who you are."

Conversely, Levi's, the respected jeans brand, "has been incredibly philanthropic over the years." Their green campaigns have been well received, generating no backlash.

To launch successful CSR marketing campaigns, Gorman recommends the following tips:

  • Assess a company's current environmental footprint;

  • Identify gaps and opportunities;

  • Develop an environmental leadership position and implementation plan;

  • Develop and implement a marketing and communications plan; and

  • Report publicly on environmental progress and challenges.

Unlike many other companies that have recently jumped onto the CSR/green bandwagon, Xerox has been an old-time trailblazer, having first started recycling back in the 1960s. But Xerox's approach is far more inclusive than that. According to Elissa Nesbitt, Xerox's corporate relations manager, the firm believes that "sustainabiity is more than just the environment." Says Nesbitt, Xerox's approach to sustainable development is the following:

  • Invest in your people and in your communities;

  • Nurture a greener world through investment in innovation and market leadership that builds shareholder value;

  • Reach out through creative partnerships; and

  • Operate with integrity and transparency.

Xerox recently strengthened its CSR/green commitment when its vice president of sustainability invited stakeholders to examine programs it had in place and offer solutions for improvement. "From the beginning we were there to set the stage and develop the broad message," explains Nesbitt.

For the most part, Xerox's campaigns have been pretty low-key, driven largely by media strategies. "The whole green movement and greenwashing have been pervasive," says Nesbitt. "You need to be very clever when you communicative your green initatives."

Her advice for pitching green stories to media: "In the age of YouTube and all the social media that's been out there, if you try to embrace it, it will certainly be your friend." Nesbitt notes that recently Xerox has developed video or podcast "extras" to supplement company announcements.

Leah Haygood, president of Buzzword, cautions against empty claims. "In the last year or two, there has been an explosion of everything green," she says. "Some might ask if green consumerism is an oxymoron but that's another connotation." Haygood does issue a caveat: "There's a risk that consumers might be skeptical of green products and practices."

If your company wants to truly be environmentally responsible, then you're just going to have to back up your claims. "Having the substance is what builds trust in the value proposition that you're offering," she says. "The main options are a sustainability/CSR report, a corporate Web site and communications targeted to a particular audience."

When communicating CSR/green strategies, "One size does not fit all." You have to take into account your audiences, which may run the gamut from employees and investors to government and media. "What many companies are doing is developing a reservoir of information and then leveraging it with different audiences depending on their various needs," says Haygood.

To generate support for your CSR commitments, you must build trust through credibility and presenting information in a creative way. Following are eight best practices:

1. Authenticity: You can't have a CSR report that looks like it came from a different company. Substance and tone are key.

2. Transparency: This builds trust with readers that they're getting a full story.

3. Balance: Provides the bad news with the good, and do so in a trustworthy manner.

4. Use of Standards: The Global Reporting Initiative is the global standard.

5. Provide Bold Vision and Goals: Consumers want to understand a company's broad objectives.

6. Focus on Material Issues: Materiality is a familiar concept from the financial accounting field; in CSR, it's adapted to what is most important to the company and stakeholders.

7. Data Presentation: It's not a matter of floating numbers to people--the reporting needs to be accurate and consistent.

8. Assurance: An idea borrowed from financial accounting, this refers to using third-party perspective to assess reporting. PRN


Liz Gorman, [email protected]; Elissa Nesbitt, [email protected]; Leah Haygood, [email protected]

Parity For All

Research shows that being environmentally responsible is a top priority for consumers.

According to Cone's Liz Gorman, "In the recent BBMG Conscious Consumers Report, which examines consumer attitudes toward green issues, it was found that 9 out of 10 respondents surveyed that the word 'conscious consumers' describe them well (and consider themselves environmentally responsible). They also support companies that support safe and fair labor practices. They also want parity in quality and price among products."

Reaching Out To The Web

Should PR pros communicate CSR/green strategies to bloggers?

Says Xerox's corporate relations manager, Elissa Nesbitt: "Yes, we have a targeted approach to bloggers. We try to categorize them--who is really working on the issues that affect us most. It's more of a social, less formal approach and it's much more frequent than how you would communicate with traditional media... Bloggers are today what trade media was 10 years ago. Companies need to be aware of the fact that there's a lot of noise out there. But you have to be true to who your company is and what your corporate personality is."