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Jerry Silfwer | Springtime PR

Sustainable business and the role of PR.

Sustainability from a business perspective, is not a strange thing if you think about it. Conduct business in a responsible way to protect your business in the long run. A safe and responsible operation can also create goodwill for the brand, not only as a useful player in the market, but also as a major employer and economical contributer to society.

But what role does PR play for sustainability? (Please note that I make no distinction between public relations people, information officers and communicators. For as long as they work in strategic communications, for me it’s just different names for the same job-specific skills.)

It is not surprising if PR is involved in the sustainability report, at least with regard to articulate and clarify how the business is managed and protected in a safe and responsible manner. Of course, the public relations function has a responsibility that the communication stays in line with reality, but the ultimate responsibility must lie within the management.

To clarify, I do not see that– for example – it is the chemical plant’s PR people who go out in the field to take water and soil samples.

A business’ sustainability and how it is reported is in other words a responsibility that must not be trapped in a “cylindrical mindset”. It must be coordinated from the top of the organization and then spread through several different organizational functions. If the PR function detects that the basis of data for sustainability reporting is not consistent with management’s expectations on the final outcome, then it is not actually about being “the organization’s bad conscience,” but instead to provide management with a new decision-making so that they can take action.

If the PR function detects that the basis of data for sustainability reporting is not consistent with reality, then it’s serious for two reasons: Firstly, this means that important information is being corrupted somewhere in the chain of internal information. Secondly because if the PR function itself can detect the errors, although they are not out with rubber boots in the field taking samples, it’s only a matter of time before the irregularities become public. Both cases clearly show the need to provide management with decision support and prepare for crisis communication, rather than acting as a “bad conscience”.

Another way that the PR function may be extremely useful in terms of sustainability efforts is to be the organization’s “ear to the ground” and to work actively on issues management. What is sustainable is never absolute, the world is changing and ethics is ultimately a question of cultural normativity. This requires an extremely sensitive touch both geographically, demographically and psycho graphically. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult as the digital media allow for all sorts of group formations.

For example: A Swedish company in China needs to act not only in ethical accordance with Chinese culture. It must also avoid acting in a manner that is acceptable in China but not in Sweden! It’s not difficult to imagine how challenging it is to act on several different types of markets simultaneously where the idea of what constitutes a responsible company differ between cultures.

Therefore it is essential for the PR function to actively listen and analyze, and to establish its results with company management. I also believe that corporate management around the world in general needs to see transformation as a normal state, making active listening even more business critical.

Actually, it is a fundamental strategic communications work where PR will work as an extension of the management. But it must never serve as a “bad conscience”, as it gives PR work an ungrateful role that cannot justify its analysis and ideas for business benefits, but will have to refer to emotional arguments.

So far, the PR function’s role in sustainability work relatively straight forward. However, there are gray areas.

Those who follow my blog Spin Doctor know I always argue that the act is the most powerful form of communication. Consequently, PR needs to be grounded with management, a theory that American PR research supports. It is also why I argue that PR function needs to take more of an advisory role, with an understanding of the organization’s processes, instead of taking the easier road of media purchase, web and advertising.

But the almost philosophical question becomes – how does a company show through action that its business is responsible, hence sustainable?

Some purists believe that a company does its part in the social system in which it acts simply by being profitable in the context of the regulatory framework that society itself has set. A company is created for growth and profitability, and everything that deviates from this focus cripple its ability to maximize returns, employment and sales. Anyone who has read Ayn Rand’s “And the world trembled” knows exactly what this is about.

From such a perspective, sustainable PR simply works to support the business as it is.

On the other hand, we have the idea of the company as an active reformer. That uses their wealth and influence to make the world a better place.  To use stunts, and campaigns to create the better conditions for endangered animals or starving children is laudable and the goodwill that is created can be a positive influence on the company’s business, directly or indirectly.

The problem with this approach is that it quickly becomes culturally imperialistic. Do we want a company to use its resources to take over the issue of right and wrong? We don’t have to distrust the companies, it is sufficient that they simply do not solve this task particularly well, since they by nature are created for completely different tasks. Today most of these communicative acts of responsibility end up somewhere in the gray area in between. Somewhat simplified, these activities may be labeled CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility.

CSR can be anything from donating a penny to a charitable organization for each member of a campaign group on Facebook gets, to climate compensation for local ecological influence. PR has an important role to play in this whole spectrum. Regardless of the company attitude towards CSR in general, it’s a common perception today is that CSR activities should have a natural link to ones own business – if only just for the sake of credibility.

But even in these cases, it is crucial that PR doesn’t revert into acting as the company’s “bad conscience”. If PR determines which CSR activities the company should focus on, someone needs to take responsibility and put an ear against the ground to discover how the company can do some good.

In conclusion, I think we can say that sustainable business is changing in that it allows real flesh and blood people inside and outside the company to choose CSR activities for them. PR acts as an agent of change in this process, instead of letting the company itself act as ethical arbiter to silence the PR function’s guilty conscience.

Update: forgot to include “greenwashing” and was actually forced to look up the term. According to Wikipedia:

“Greenwashing (green white wash) is the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources. It Is a Deceptive use of green PR or green marketing.”

Have I experienced this? Yes! Most of us who have worked with technology-intense companies in recent years can hardly have missed the mega trend of “green IT”. Talk about a worn-out marketing term!

Please understand, it is good that companies streamline their processes and technologies in the IT field, so that environmental impacts are minimized. But, name an IT department that hasn’t worked with this before “the green IT trend” hit? On the other hand, is it bad that companies compete against each other on who has the “greenest” (effective or leaner) information technology?

Jerry Silfwer blog