I’ve been in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability for the last eleven years. The pace of change in the last year has been astonishing. While we’ve moved from climate change being the phrase-that-shall-not-be-named in the early days to it now being included in business risk analyses and an integral part of CDP and GRI reporting, the change that is the most significant is the expectation that brands and CEOs take a stand on social issues.
Im sitting here at my desk on a cold Friday night in January, settling paperwork for the new year and trying to get organized for the coming tax time. I’m my parents’ financial person and this means while they are living out their days in a memory care facility in Ohio, I am in California making sure their bills are paid and matters are in hand.
For me, that means logging into their gmail to make sure there are no missed yearend statements and continuing to unsubscribe from all the progressive, humanitarian causes and newsletters they subscribed to but never read anymore. It means checking the credit card statement and bank balance and then getting out my mom’s check book and files.
And then my throat tightens and tears prick. Because I see her handwriting in the checkbook ledger and remember what a stickler she was for balancing her checkbook every month. Even though she also checked her account online too. She had technology skills, she sure did. And I also see the cryptic notes written on scraps of paper in the files and on back pages of the ledger, on little post-it notes — reminders of passwords and what to do to login in, and what each account meant. Not your usual tips and tricks, but shards of thoughts from someone who was losing her ability to stay in charge — my mom’s favorite place to be.
I may be 3000 miles away, but who she is — and who she was — is right in front of me every day. Her memory loss. My loss. My memories.
Everything changes during the moment when you wake up, realize that things need to be better, and understand that you have a role to play in the story. Companies are beginning to understand that they must internalize and articulate a purpose beyond profit. This usually takes what Ray Anderson called his “spear in the chest” moment, when he saw the power/devastation industry can have on the world. He realized his life would never be the same. As a revolution of real change unfolds, what happens is a change of heart for the entire organizations.
The communications implications for this are significant. How a brand is understood and expressed must now reflect a deeper purpose. First, alignment around and commitment to that purpose must be created. The challenge is for businesses – who are facing growing activist consumers as well as employees – to clearly and credibly express a new dimension of their business. A dimension that is not held hostage to short term profitability but rather integrates service to greater good alongside financial well-being.
We as sustainability communicators understand the power of the narrative to help organizations’ achieve their goals. After more than 30 years, I see the role that communications plays in five distinct co-creation areas and believe that this is the core of what we – the storytellers of commerce — are working toward:
1. Establishing credibility. From branding initiatives to corporate reputation campaigns, brands are creating a new series of communications that provide the detailed transparency for telling a complex sustainability story. Truth-telling and hero’s journey are the themes here.
2. Removing barriers. There is a range of stakeholders whose buy-in is essential in successful sustainability implementation. Employees, supply chain, distribution partners, governments and NGOs, local communities must all become part of the team and be persuaded to set aside self-serving agendas and biases. A call to community is at the heart of this effort.
3. Accelerating acceptance. Clarity can speed goal attainment when players in the system understand how their contribution and connection contributes to success. Participation in a greater goal that is a both-and proposition is the key theme.
4. Operationalizing intention. Vision, heart, and purpose are all lofty concepts that need to come down to earth in order to gain real traction. The place where programs can break down is on the factory floor where those in charge of actually delivering progress on environmental or social impacts are left out of the process. Cross-functional teams are critical.
5. Empowering evangelists. Businesses now rely on a host of advocates who share the narrative – they tweet, post, like, share and rate. Everywhere you can read about how business as we know it has changed – that social media and the new connected customer require a new way of doing business. This means creating narratives that are distinct, sharable messages designed so that others can say-it-forward.
Co-created communications with stakeholders can only come from a strategic approach and the realization that it must be carefully constructed for every transaction. Sustainability communication gives people on all sides of the revolution a voice. And that beautifully expresses a change of heart.