By Geoff Ledford
On Friday, Sept. 24, thinkPARALLAX and TriplePundit organized a meet-up and discussion between leading sustainability influencers in the Bay Area at Autodesk’s San Francisco headquarters.
The event built on thinkPARALLAX’s most recent thought leadership piece on Sustainable Brands – Discerning taste: sustainability reporting for evolving audiences – which looks at how sustainability audiences have evolved in recent years and examines the ways that leading organizations have begun to adapt. The morning saw industry peers come together to discuss tactics for engaging audiences through sustainability messages.
The event featured a panel discussion featuring Ben Thompson, senior manager of sustainability at Autodesk; Stephanie Rico, senior VP of environmental affairs at Wells Fargo; and Laurel Peacock, senior manager of sustainability at NRG Energy. It was moderated by thinkPARALLAX’s Tyler Wagner and TriplePundit’s Nick Aster. In line with the other events in this series, the audience participated extensively and supported the conversation with insights of their own. What follows are a few of the lessons we learned based on the discussion:
"Our key power as sustainability practitioners is our ability to influence. We can be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ about emerging issues and risks that can affect our business long-term – and then bring those issues to the people that can actually mitigate them." -- Laurel Peacock, NRG
“We’re a lot like baristas – if we’re in an influencer or manager role, we have to deliver our message in a way that others will accept.” -- Ben Thompson, Autodesk
“Learn how to segment your audience. And maybe even prioritize those audiences. It will make your communications more effective.” --Ben Thompson, Autodesk
Laurel Peacock of NRG told a story about an executive from BlackRock who (rather bluntly) told her that most investors simply don’t bother with traditional sustainability communications. If sustainability messaging is intended to reach investors, they’ll have to get it somewhere other than a report. Several other questions followed about what kind of data best catered to this audience and (with limited resources and staff) how sustainability departments could best serve them.
One member of the audience with a background in investing offered insight that helped explain the mixed messages investors sometimes give. Although most investors have ESG investment teams, they themselves are not entirely sure what to do with ESG data: “Investors are going back and weighing ESG data against portfolios historically and figuring out how to use ESG," the attendee said. "They’re still grappling with it.”
Until investors have finished figuring out the relationship between sustainability data and investment performance, their tastes will likely continue to shift.
Autodesk was recently included in a major Socially Responsible Investor (SRI) index. In Thompson's opinion, this success shouldn’t be attributed to Autodesk filling out the correct surveys or checking the right boxes. As he sees it, Autodesk’s success with SRIs is a result of the company’s entire body of sustainability communications – which the details can support.
If sustainability practitioners become too focused on the details of sustainability, they can lose sight of the bigger story they are trying to tell. And this big story is what enables sustainability communications to be effective and engaging.
“Analyst surveys are important. And stakeholder feedback is good. But the rest of the body of comms, like the CEO message and other external messages, are what give that data legs and can really improve a company’s reputation.” -- Ben Thompson, Autodesk
To reach both of these audiences, Wells Fargo created a stories site. As Rico put it, most employees have a taste for stories – not data: “It’s the human interest stories that are compelling and that people will read.”
“If you want to be heard, you have to serve your message in a way that people understand it.” -- Stephanie Rico, Wells Fargo
According to the panelists, the key to achieving this kind of buy-in depends on communicating with leadership in terms that each leader can understand. Autodesk’s leadership team are staunch advocates for sustainability, but it wasn’t always so.
Ben Thompson recounted how much work it is to meet with leaders and argue for sustainability priorities, all in terms that each leader would understand. But the results have been worth the effort and are helping create sales: “Now, sales teams usually take the CEO letter (from the sustainability report) and a fact sheet to customers.”
Thompson added a word of warning to the discussion: “But watch out. Because one day the lightbulb will go off and then you have to make sure they have the right data and talking points all lined out for them. Because they’ll just run off with it.”
We have to learn to understand our audiences, consider their values, and then speak to them in ways that resonate. As sustainability audiences grow and evolve, learning how to implement such tactics requires strategy, consideration, and practice.
Image credit: Pixabay