Beyond greenwash

It's time to make your sustainability communications more credible and convincing, says Jason Sumner.

Corporations are under pressure to talk more openly about their impacts on the environment and society. Bowen Craggs has been benchmarking and measuring digital corporate sustainability communications for two decades. Here are five enduring principles for making sustainability communications persuasive and distinctive.

Corporate sustainability is finally having its moment in the boardroom. Companies are lining up to announce carbon neutral declarations, diversity commitments and support for political movements. Those who don’t yet have a climate policy or green-tinged purpose statement are scrambling to catch up. Anecdotally, we have heard from our network of digital corporate communicators that sustainability communications is ‘where the momentum is’. Our own research – including website visitor surveys and polls of Bowen Craggs Club members – backs this up.

The sudden C-suite attention on sustainability is ultimately a good thing, but risky for companies and corporate communicators. Corporations have outsize impacts on global problems and any solutions they implement can cross borders and build much-needed global momentum to solve big problems like climate change and biodiversity loss. From a communications perspective, when companies start to act in meaningful ways, there is a good story to tell.

The flipside is that half-hearted action can lead communicators to overpromise and under-deliver, with the risk of acquiring a damaging reputation for greenwashing (sustainability communications or PR that is seen as lacking substance to back it up).

We have been benchmarking and measuring sustainability communications on digital channels for two decades, through our Index of Online Excellence, visitor research and consulting. The labels and acronyms seem to change every few years – HSE, CSR, ESG, etc – but here are five enduring principles to make your environmental and social communications credible, distinctive and persuasive.

Know your audience

It may seem basic, but many companies don’t take this into enough consideration; they make incorrect assumptions about visitor interests, or communicate using internal jargon. Who, exactly, visits your corporate digital channels and what do they want? For most large companies the answer is complex and nuanced, but there are strong similarities across sectors. At a high level, there is a core audience of sustainability specialists, usually small but influential, that wants deep non-financial performance data and information. Then there are the generalists. Our visitor research also shows that a significant percentage of every corporate audience – investor, jobseeker, employee, journalist, customer, supplier – has an interest in a company’s environmental and social performance.

Our Google Analytics research shows that sustainability sections on corporate websites receive relatively little traffic compared to other sections (that core group of professionals), although there are large differences by sector. The conclusion is, if you want people to see sustainability material, it’s important to put links in sections and social media channels where they do visit.

All of these audiences are seeking information in order to make decisions. Some of them want data, some will have time to read stories and articles, or peruse your social media channels to build up an impression.

The free-text area of our website visitor surveys shows that these audiences give short shrift to marketing speak, poor usability and shallow explanations. As a communicator, you may know these audiences and what they want intuitively, but nothing beats an unambiguous set of empirical data when working with colleagues or senior leaders – it helps avoid ‘alternative facts’ or deferring to the most powerful person in the room.  

Say something meaningful and back it up

The best way to illustrate this principle is to give examples. Apple’s carbon neutral plan has won praise from independent journalists because it covers emissions in the supply chain, a much harder target to meet than carbon neutrality limited to a company’s own operations. Apple communicates other initiatives clearly, including its environmental report cards for products. It is also worth considering specifically highlighting climate change in its own subsection, as French insurance giant AXA does, given the intense public interest in the topic. AXA talks about both climate change and diversity in accessible language, backing up claims with evidence.

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In contrast, Danaher’s ‘shared purpose and core values’ video misses the mark – overly long, clichéd and full of terms no one outside the organization will understand; it also provides little in the way of hard evidence to back up claims.

Be factual and honest about the bad news

It’s easier for companies to talk about good news, but visitors want to know how the company is handling controversies and complexity. In the past, it was often perceived as simpler to ignore controversies, but most large companies in the public eye realize the power of corporate digital channels to tell their side of the story, to everyone from enquiring journalists to their own employees. Some of the best examples of controversy management online are Eni’s ‘fact checking’ guides, Glencore’s FAQ and Inditex’s defense of its tax contributions.

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Add ‘trust signals’ to persuade visitors and improve SEO

Search engines are getting better at recognizing signals that we intuitively use to decide whether to trust a source – named authors, links to real social media accounts, FAQs that answer real questions, all help persuade audiences; and they also move your articles up Google’s search ranking. Structure and usability, including a prominent breadcrumb trail, also improve search engine optimisation.

Provide detail for those who need it

Most of the world ignores corporate social responsibility reports, but a dedicated few will eagerly delve into the charts and footnotes. They are people who visit in order to do their day job, and influence your reputation via the things they publish: corporate social responsibility analysts, representatives from NGOs, financial professionals, regulators, investigative journalists.

Amgen, a US-based biotechnology company, has excellent online data. BASF, the German chemicals giant, reports its environmental and social data along with financial reporting, and is one of the best in the world at explaining how sustainability is managed and integrated into operations.

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BASF also has a prominent sustainability section in the ‘Investors’ section of its corporate site. This is an example of emerging best practice that we have integrated into our Index of Online Excellence methodology in 2021. It makes sense for most companies to at least link to environmental and social reporting from their investor section. Unusually, BASF also houses its main ‘Sustainability’ section in ‘Who we are’, a placement that reduces visibility from the primary menu, but which our analytics analysis suggests could lead to higher traffic because ‘about’ sections are so much more highly visited overall – one to keep an eye on.

Conclusion – the all-seeing editorial eye

Corporate communicators are unique because they look across the organization and see the needs of all stakeholder groups. With the rise of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, that is a potentially powerful position to be in, and one of the trends we’ll be exploring more in our ‘Explaining yourself in 2021’ report, due out in March. The most effective companies at digital communications have processes in place to ensure that others inside the company also see beyond their silos – for example by establishing editorial and technical boards that bring together all corporate, customer, brand and country channels to discuss unified platforms and messaging; pool knowledge about audiences, and find good stories to tell. Credibility ultimately comes from the sustainability strategy itself, but by encouraging transparency and clarity on digital channels (and exposing gaps), communicators can influence the leadership to go further in its ambitions.

Jason Sumner is director of operations and editorial at Bowen Craggs

Are you wrestling with how to upgrade your digital sustainability communications right now? Bowen Craggs can help. Email Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencragg.com.

 

First published 27 January, 2021
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