Does sustainability communications have to be so boring?

In the earnest, fact-based world of sustainability communications there is no room for spin, but companies need to be brave enough to talk about failure, says PR agency boss Lou Hoffman.

Companies hate talking about their failures, especially when it comes to sustainability. But being open about their weaknesses as well their achievements might help firms avoid one of the biggest corporate communications sins: being boring. 

This was the advice offered by public relations veteran Lou Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of San Jose-based global tech PR firm The Hoffman Agency, who for 30 years has managed the reputations of the likes of global business giants such as Google, Avaya, Brother and Fuji Xerox.

“Dullness comes from a combination of the lexicon of your company and corporate speak,” Hoffman told an audience during a session on storytelling techniques at media and marketing conference Mumbrella360 Asia in Singapore last week.

Companies also come across as uninteresting when they brag about their achievements, and “bang people over the head” with boastful content that turns readers off, said Hoffman, whose agency has published a report on the obstacles PR professionals in Asia face in creating good content.

He added: “I don’t know when it happened, but companies now have the attitude that ‘I paid for it [an agency to produce content], so I get to say whatever I want.’ Yes, that’s true. But don’t you want to say something that people care about, and journalists may want to write about?”

Hoffman acknowledged that in the dry, cautious world of sustainability, the tone of conversation companies take is usually “clinical and academic,” and with good reason—setting the record straight on environmental and social matters requires a steady voice and is no time for spin.

But talking about failure in the public domain allows the company to “be its own ombudsman” and review its own progress in dealing with difficult issues if they arise in future, he said.

By talking about what has gone wrong, a company can at least establish a public record, and “deposit goodwill in the karma bank,” he added. By talking about what has gone wrong, a company can garner goodwill from the public for being honest, transparent, and accountable, he explained. 

By talking about it [sustainability], you establish a public record, and you’re effectively depositing goodwill in the karma bank. So when the shit hits the fan, you’ve got a foundation to take a punch if something happens down the road.

In this interview with Eco-Business on the sidelines of Mumbrella Asia 360, Hoffman talks about why sustainability communications does not have to be boring, why spin never pays, and how to align a sustainability story with an ever-shortening news cycle.

What’s the secret to making sustainability interesting?

Some companies, in an attempt not to brag about their achievements, have taken the opposite approach and are clinical and almost academic in how they communicate their sustainability story.

I don’t think that’s a horrible way of doing it—it’s better than boasting. A lot of time the communication for a sustainability story is trying to satisfy a very complex and diverse group of stakeholders, and that’s a hard thing to do—but it doesn’t have to be boring.

What’s tricky is the idea of bringing failure into a sustainability story, and talking about where a company has gone wrong. But a company that has had problems, reported them in a clear and accurate way, and explained how they took corrective action, can be their own ombudsman when they review how they are doing later on.

But some companies worry that if they are up-front about failure when telling their sustainability story, they will open themselves to criticism from non-govermental organisations (NGOs). What do you say to companies that have this concern?

If a company doesn’t have a solution, it would be risky. But if the company has taken the right steps and has addressed the issue, then it’s no longer in question whether or not they will do the right thing. So why aren’t they willing to talk about the part that wasn’t so great?

Some companies might think it’s less trouble to say nothing at all. Is this a good idea? 

A lot of the time, companies do not communicate what they’re doing in sustainability at all, often with the best intentions; they feel that they don’t want to brag.

But even when things aren’t going wrong, it’s always better to communicate what you’re doing in sustainability. By talking about it, you establish a public record, and you’re effectively depositing goodwill in the karma bank. So when the shit hits the fan, you’ve got a foundation to take a punch if something happens down the road. You can show a history of proper behaviour, and that allows you to take the position that the issue or problem was a one-off. 

Sustainability stories tend to be slow, and unfold over a number of years, even decades. How can companies align sustainability stories with an increasingly short news cycle?

The element that often gets left out of sustainability stories is the human dimension. Often, sustainability stories are just about numbers and quantifying progress. While that is important, it shouldn’t stop there.

For instance, my sister has a small company called Under the Nile that specialises in children’s undergarments made from organic Egyptian cotton. There’s a lot of controversy around Egyptian cotton, how it’s grown, the use of pesticides and the sale of faked fabric. What they did was tell the sustainability story at the level of individual workers, which brought in some humanity amid all the quantification. 

What are companies mostly getting it right—and wrong—in their sustainability storytelling?

I don’t think companies scenario plan enough for crisis situations. The way NGOs behave these days—they can be volatile, at times reckless. Of course you need checks and balances, and NGOs serve a need. But sometimes it seems that NGOs are just out to crush companies, and so companies need assets to defend themselves and establish a public record if they’re unfairly attacked.

A few years ago, we went through a situation with a Taiwanese semiconductor packaging and manufacturing company. They had an accident, and toxic chemicals were discharged into a river. It was definitely their fault. It was human error, and they owned up to it. It was a one time event, but the NGOs crushed them.

The company thought the story would go away, because they’d taken corrective actions, and something like this had never happened before. But it didn’t. The internet never forgets, and when people searched the company online, the incident was always the first thing they found.

Two years later they came to us for help. 

How did you solve the problem?

We concluded that two years after the fact, to go to journalists and ask them to correct the record was an exercise in futility. Instead, we built a standalone microsite. We optimised the site for search and told their story in a distinct way. We vetted the copy, so that there were no adjectives or adverbs. We wanted it to be almost academic—to give their point of view and show remorse.

We also put some paid search behind the microsite. This allowed the company to insert their voice into what people were finding in their own searches that was very different to the voice of the NGOs.

It worked. Fourteen months later, the company felt that they could take microsite down, as they felt the public record had been balanced.

Are there any clients you wouldn’t work with, because of their environmental track record. Or are you of the view that every firm has a right to PR counsel no matter what?

If there was a company that was a chronic polluter, and it was clear to us that they’d made a decision at the management level that it was in their best business interests to keep polluting and pay the fines and take the hits, I would not work with them.

In the case of the Taiwanese semiconductor company, I said that I would not take the assignment unless they convinced me that the accident really was a one-off event.

We have our reputation to think about too. We won’t communicate anything that’s not true.

We’re all for putting a client’s best foot forward, but we won’t spin. If that company had wanted to bamboozle me for two days—I’m not an expert in water management—they could have done so. But they spent time with me, and I saw the facility and how it works. There was of leap of faith to make. I made a judgement call that they were genuine.

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