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With More CSOs on the Scene, We're Sharing Sustainability Communication Tips

By Dave Armon
As more corporate sustainability officers emerge on the scene, we all benefit from their experience - here are a few tips for sustainability communications professionals from some leaders in this field.

As more corporate sustainability officers emerge on the business scene, we can all benefit from their experience - here are a few tips for sustainability communications professionals via some leaders in this field.

Certain job titles are the modern-day version of the buggy whip manufacturer.  Thanks to Uber and Lyft, we don’t meet many taxi cab drivers these days.  Typewriter repair technicians are tough to find, too.

One profession that is rising is the sustainability communicator.

In 2015, a search on LinkedIn revealed 445 profiles with titles including sustainability and communications.  That number is more than 1,100 today.

This growth is noteworthy because there is considerable disagreement about how to label the work that corporations undertake to become better corporate citizens, and where on the organizational chart to place the individuals doing the work. For every LinkedIn explicitly stating they are sustainability communicators, there are probably 10 who do that kind of work without basking in the glow of that cool title.

Some companies talk about their agenda for environmental, social and governance (ESG) progress using the term Sustainability, with a capital “S.”  Others prefer corporate social responsibility (CSR) or corporate citizenship.  All these monikers qualify companies to claim they are purpose-driven, sustainable businesses—among other terms that are worth watching.

When conference producers dedicate sessions to sustainability communications, the breakout rooms invariably fill to capacity.  When London-based Ethical Corporation brought its Responsible Business Summit to New York this spring, some veteran practitioners doled out advice so good that that I felt their pointers were worth sharing with you.

Procter & Gamble’s Virginie Helias, chief sustainability officer for the consumer products giant, warned that internal communications can be derailed by skeptical middle managers. "Don't waste your energy on the naysayers," she advised, adding that she is willing to “name and shame” when appropriate. Emphasizing a “carrot over a stick,” Helias said P&G launched an Ambition 2030 Awards program with middle management as one key stakeholder.

P&G also does a significant amount of external communication on topics ranging from environmental sustainability and gender equality to diversity and inclusion and community impact.

At the global electronic manufacturing services firm Flex, internal communications about sustainability is complicated by the fact that more than half of its 220,000 employees don’t sit at a desk and don’t have a computer, said Kelly Hampton, vice president of global marketing and sustainability at Flex.

Beyond the lack of effective digital communications tools to reach employees, the diversity of the workforce resembles the United Nations in some of Flex’s 100 locations in 30 countries, Hampton said. 

“Compliance and safety posters are in 15 languages in one space,” she said, adding that scorecards with red, yellow and green traffic lights are effective in pushing local managers to get behind sustainability initiatives, especially when they know that Flex’s president views the reports.

Flex employee communications initiatives include a focus on Earth Day, Women’s Day, cultural diversity and people with disabilities, said Hampton, emphasizing that 80,000 employees participated in one or more activity during Earth Day week.

“We don’t dictate what the local community or the local site does.  We just give them the sandbox to play in,” she said.  “The locals suggest the ideas.”

The lobbies of the dormitories at Flex manufacturing sites are used for quarterly coffee talks on sustainability topics, with the events broadcasted in three time zones.  Speakers include guests from the U.N. Global Compact discussing the Sustainable Development Goals, environment or gender equality.  “People really enjoy hearing a third-party view,” Hampton said.

At Domtar, North America’s largest manufacturer of sheet paper, sustainability is used as a recruitment tool. “’We want to work for a company like yours,’ is what we hear,” said Paige Goff, vice president of sustainability for Domtar. “Sustainability is the number one pull on the Domtar newsroom,” Goff added. “Getting it communicated down to the [manufacturing] floor is what we want to do.”  Domtar’s considerable sustainability initiatives can be reviewed here.

Image credit of P&G Headquarters courtesy the company’s media relations site

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Dave Armon is the Chief Executive Officer of 3BL Media, which produces the 3BL Forum and ranks the 100 Best Corporate Citizens. A former journalist, Dave spent 20 years in management at PR Newswire, where he was president and COO.  

Read more stories by Dave Armon