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Embracing an Audience-First Approach to Sustainability Communications

By 3p Contributor

By Guusje Bendeler

Research clearly indicates that today’s stakeholders expect more from companies — they want to purchase from and work for companies that champion sustainability. This shift in attitude is dramatically altering the way that companies conduct (and even think about) their businesses.

However, since modern audiences are accustomed to having loads of content provided to them at their fingertips, contemporary sustainability has given rise to a new type of challenge for many organizations. In addition to acting responsibly, companies are now expected to effectively communicate about this stuff — which can seem like a daunting task on its own.

We recently had an opportunity to discuss the relationship between sustainability and communications with Chris Librie, eBay’s senior director of global impact and giving. Librie is an expert communicator — skilled at drawing audiences into discussions about sustainability, business, and the intersection between the two — and our conversation showed us why. He was full of insights, opinions, and ideas (some of which had us laughing out loud).

What follows are a few of the takeaways from our discussion with him.

The gap between sustainability and marketing

Librie comes to sustainability from a unique vantage point. He specialized in marketing and communications prior to his work in sustainability, so he has an interesting take on how to bridge the gap between the two subjects.

“Earlier in my career when I was at S.C. Johnson — which is a company of brands — one of the reasons I had that role there was because I had been a marketer [before] and kind of understood the world of the marketer, which is to drive market share and deliver a P&L," Librie explained.

“It really helps to sit down with them and get into that. What are the issues that the consumer has with your product? We were able to find a number of those and develop them into sustainability programs.”

“Ultimately sustainability is a way to position a company for the long term, so you have to understand what the business is trying to accomplish to be able to put yourself in the marketer’s shoes.“

The role of annual sustainability reports

Librie was adamant that an annual sustainability report is not a good way to engage the vast majority of audiences. If an organization wants to engage the growing spectrum of stakeholders interested in sustainability, it must embrace a range of modern communication tactics.

To this end, he sees the role of the sustainability reporing shifting. Most organizations should continue to produce formal sustainability reports, but these should focus more exclusively on data, analysis, and explanations necessary to understand a company’s footprint. Reports should no longer be viewed as the place where companies try to tell their sustainability stories.

“The fact is that even if they’re really well-written, very few people read them.”

Leveraging digital communications effectively

As communicators move away from reports as the de facto place to tell sustainability stories, Librie sees the importance of digital communication tactics continuing to rise. Digital communications give organizations an opportunity to present “layers” of information. “I see a far larger role being played by websites, because a website can be interactive and updatable throughout the year. I think you can do a far better job of guiding people from a high level into more detail on a website than you can in a report.”

These tactics should be catered to different audiences, timely (supporting other things that are happening within the organization or in response to events going on in the world), and rolled out throughout the year.

Contextualizing sustainability and creating a voice

Many formal sustainability reports end up sounding like a “greatest hits” compilation of a company’s sustainability efforts. While this approach gives many organizations a much-needed platform where they can talk about their achievements, it doesn’t foster dialog with stakeholders — a key part of effectively communicating with modern audiences. Librie sees an opportunity for companies to learn how to connect the dots between what they are doing and what’s happening in the world around them.

“Increasingly, I think the opportunity for companies is to take a point of view on sustainability issues and talk about them with a voice — not just kind of in a ‘touting our latest achievement’ way, but actually getting into a dialogue with stakeholders.”

Audience-centric communications

As companies learn to adjust to new communications paradigms, audiences’ needs and expectations will continue to play a larger role in the future. As Librie put it: “I think a more audience-specific approach to sustainability communication is the way of the future. I think there was the period of the report — the period of GRI and all this kind of work that was very engineering- and compliance-driven. Now I think companies that are going in the right direction are saying, ‘Well, wait a second. Do we really need to be hidebound by that stuff? Can’t we take our own approach?’”

To learn more about how companies can connect purposeful sustainability with engaging communications tactics, read our full conversation with Chris Librie here.

Image credit: Pixabay

Guusje Bendeler is co-founder and Chief Strategy & Creative of thinkPARALLAX, a creative marketing and communications consultancy committed to building brands with purpose. Her work with clients such as Southwest Airlines, Qualcomm, International Paper, and Beam Suntory — has included overseeing the development and implementation of corporate brand strategies.

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