Using PR as an agent for change in corporate sustainability

Here’s a piece on the role of PR in bringing about change within businesses, NGOs and partnerships, originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog […]

Here’s a piece on the role of PR in bringing about change within businesses, NGOs and partnerships, originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog on 30th January.

Sustainability was one of the big talking points at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week and conversations focused on how to resolve issues such as food security and a warming planet; issues that need people and organisations with very different interests to be persuaded to act for the common good.

But as sustainability and transparency occupies increasing space in the political and corporate consciousness, what role is there for PR people to effect real action and change, rather than being seen as purveyors of greenwash and cover up?

What if public relations’ role was not about managing reputation or winning favour for past acts of philanthropy but engendering positive future change and accelerating progress on key sustainability issues?

Progress on sustainability means persuading multinationals to change their production and supply processes, consumers to choose goods that do more good or less harm and policy makers to regulate for sustainable development. These are tough challenges, made tougher by the fact that the organisations that can have the biggest impact in these areas – multinational companies, the UN, governments – tend to be slow to action or to change direction. Add to the mix the fact that sustainability requires organisations increasingly to work in partnership with some strange bedfellows, and you have all the ingredients for nothing happening very fast.

A more dynamic role for PR

This is where public relations may have a more dynamic role; as an agent for change rather than to gloss up reputations.

Some organisations – pressure groups, for example – are all about change and tend to be most adept at using the media and PR to accelerate that change. For example, Greenpeace’s highly sophisticated “give the orang-utan a break” assault on the Kit Kat brand in 2010, quickly led to parent company Nestlé announcing it would identify and remove any companies in their supply chain with links to deforestation.

But corporates are adopting the power of PR as an accelerator of change, which can have benefits across multiple audiences including company staff. Going very public, very early on sustainability can have remarkable results.

Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever (and much lauded for his progressive agenda), has used the media to push his agenda along more quickly than might otherwise happen. His message that “the big issues the world is facing require new approaches, new business models and new partnerships. Responsible businesses must take a more active leadership role” is stated clearly through the media.

His employees (he has 170,000 of them) read this and know where their company is heading. There’s no turning back from such public declarations, whereas employees in any organisation might remain cautious about pledges made in internal meeting rooms. Suddenly they are liberated to be open about their own passions rather than worry that being enthusiastic about sustainability is somehow not the corporate thing to do, or might limit their career.

Building trust with NGOs and campaigners

As well as aligning and mobilising internal audiences, PR can improve trust between corporate and NGO too. There is much talk about the need for closer partnerships and collaboration between for-profit and not-for-profit organisations.

However, businesses are asking NGOs to make a difficult journey, from corporate watchdog to corporate partner. This requires some leap of faith. Coupled with the fact that it also requires a change in fundraising models from grants and public donations to corporate funding, it’s easy to understand why some NGOs remain wary about fully embracing this new model. Highly visible public declarations of intent from business leaders can help them make that leap of faith.

When Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, wants to persuade a sceptical audience that he’s serious about active collaboration with external organisations, he gives an interview to the media, such as this one to the Guardian: “People say we only publish positive trials. No, we publish everything. But the fact that people don’t know or haven’t yet accepted that we have this real commitment to transparency – we’ve got to keep working harder to get that message across.”

Lessons from the leaders

As someone who works in public relations I have a vested interest in saying that PR has a role to play in accelerating progress on sustainability, but that doesn’t mean that the lessons to be drawn from leaders like Polman and Witty aren’t true.

Here are my top three tips for getting it right:

  • Set and communicate a clear direction on sustainability, which liberates people throughout your organisation to talk passionately and freely about what you’re doing. They are your best advocates.
  • Be transparent about your motives. Business needs to pursue business objectives if any initiative is to be sustainable. Don’t let PR wrap your business motives in cloying half stories about the social good your business is driving.
  • Tell the story of the journey. Be open about what’s not working as much as what is. Vulnerability plays surprisingly well with sustainability stakeholders and a cynical public.