How should you communicate your company's sustainability performance online?

The purpose of companies in society is increasingly being questioned, and corporate behaviour is under scrutiny as never before. In response, companies are opening up about their activities – promoting the good and defending the bad. 

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The shift towards transparency is leaving many corporate digital managers wondering how best to prioritise and present sustainability material on their digital channels, says Jason Sumner. 

Big companies are getting a lot of attention right now, most of it unwanted, some of it sought after. Starting with the unwanted kind – the 24-hour media seizes on every new scandal and social media amplifies it around the world. Facebook experienced what sustained, negative coverage can do to its reputation when it tumbled down the list of ‘most-loved’ brands, from 2nd to 80th.

On the other hand, the CEOs of some still-loved brands, such as Apple, tweet support for political causes, attracting praise in some quarters but at the same time inviting scepticism about so-called ‘woke’ corporations.

We’ve tracked these trends as part of the research for our Explain Yourself Index, which looks at how well companies are ‘explaining’ who they are on digital channels – their values, history and contribution to society. We also evaluate these issues in granular detail as part of our ‘serving society’ metrics in the Index of Online Excellence. What we have noticed is that the growing outside pressure on companies is raising some very practical questions for corporate digital managers about how to design their ‘sustainability’ sections.

Two audience groups – the ‘professional’ and ‘everyone else’

Any questions about online sustainability material – what to produce, where to post it, subjects to cover, formats to use, tone to adopt, and so on – start with an understanding of your audiences and their needs. What do they want from you and what do you want to say to them?

It is useful to put audiences for sustainability, or corporate social responsibility (CSR), into two broad buckets – the ‘CSR professional’ and ‘everyone else’. CSR professionals are a highly specific group – representatives of NGOs, charities, governments – the kinds of people who are paid to visit your website and check out your CSR credentials. They are looking for data, targets and evidence that you have systems in place to make sure CSR is integrated throughout the company.

Our trove of corporate website visitor survey data, collected since 2011 and consisting of more than half a million respondents, shows that CSR professionals account for about 1 per cent of visitors to a corporate website. This is a small, but potentially influential, group.

‘Everyone else’ is the share of all of your other main corporate audiences – investors, media, jobseekers, customers – that are interested in sustainability issues as primary or secondary reasons for visiting your site. They may be looking for specific information like CSR professionals, but their needs differ. As a group, they are more likely to be doing research on your company as a whole, and are likely to be more open to your messages via longer articles and stories, as opposed to hard data.

Our survey data shows that on average, between 1 per cent and 7 per cent of these other stakeholder audiences visit a website to find out about sustainability. Again, these are small numbers in percentage terms but in absolute numbers can represent hundreds or thousands of visitors on some websites. Also, all websites are different. Some of the companies in our survey benchmark group, usually if they tend to attract controversy, see up to double these percentages.

You can and should break these audiences down further in terms of priorities and needs, but the top-level division is a good start.

Best practice sustainability sections

How do the leaders in our Index of Online Excellence tackle their sustainability sections?

In terms of structure, they make a distinction between sustainability material for CSR professionals and material that would appeal to more general audiences. BAT, the tobacco company, makes the clearest delineation. Its ‘Sustainability’ section is aimed at serving professionals, and is signposted alongside primary navigation links aimed at other specific audience groups – Investors, Media and Careers – and houses data and governance information.

More general sustainability information is included in every other section of the site – ‘About us’, ‘Our products’, ‘How we work’ and ‘Our industry’.

BAT’s strict model works for its sector and situation. Others may wish to follow GSK or Shell, for example, which keep sustainability in one place but use ‘reporting’ signposts to direct professionals to the right area of the section.

In terms of data and governance for professionals, there are several high-scorers in our Index, including Ford, Merck, Nestlé and BP. Look to 3M for example, for a neatly designed and well-laid out data summary. BASF has comprehensive information about CSR governance.

Sustainability material for ‘everyone else’ can be creative, engaging and persuasive, as our the top performers in this area – Goldman Sachs, Nestlé and Unilever – show. Goldman Sachs covers community initiatives in its ‘Stories of Progress’ section, for example, with engaging and credible videos. Unilever, in addition to other strengths, uses social media adeptly to get its responsibility messages across.

Moreover, our data show that sustainability sections are not heavily visited compared to other sections, so sustainability links in other sections are important to get traction among the portions of your audiences who ‘don’t know’ they are interested in sustainability until you put it in front of them.

Conclusion – two interesting trends

Digital corporate communications teams usually cannot do much about the CSR data their company produces, but it is worth being aware that investors used to comparable financial numbers are beginning to complain about lack of relevance and uniformity of non-financial reporting. This is yet more evidence that a growing portion of investors – and not just traditional ‘socially responsible investment’ funds, are starting to be interested in sustainability. So it is worth thinking about whether you need more links from ‘Investors’ to ‘Sustainability’.

Finally, do you think sustainability should be a secret? A surprising number of companies are bucking the trend for openness by ‘going green’ but keeping quiet about it, for fear of a backlash or accusations of green-washing. ‘Secret sustainability’ could be yet another challenge for digital communicators, who already find it hard enough sourcing CSR stories and bringing their company’s good works to light.

First published 11 September, 2019
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