What does it mean to be “good” at sustainability communications in a digital age? In recent years we’ve seen a rising tide of interest in some of the channels and tools that have become essential components: social media, infographics, video, storytelling…
But taken in isolation, each of these elements can only do so much. Through the CSR Online Awards, we’ve spent eight years researching what the winning formula is, supported by surveys of CSR and sustainability experts that have gathered over 1,600 responses and repeated evaluations of hundreds of European companies.
One of the conclusions we came to in the latest (6th) edition of the research was the importance of the ability to use digital to convey how a company translates the broader sustainability agenda into its own reality, its particular business sector, culture and operating context.
We called it “distinctiveness”. Critically, it’s the interplay between transparency and engagement that allows stakeholders to understand in a dynamic way what path a company has chosen to take, to be able to form a reasonable opinion on its progress and engage as appropriate. So, any social media and digital campaigns, infographics, videos and stories must be judged not only on their own merits but also on how they fit into a wider corporate “ecosystem”, responding to external needs in terms of transparency, clarity and continuity.
Just to make the point in a different way, a while ago we built a Pinterest board collating the images that so many companies use to communicate CSR and sustainability: trees, fields, waterfalls, shaking-hands, smiling children and seascapes abound.
Looking at the results of our research over the past 18 months, we’ve noticed the strong performance put in by German companies. Deutsche Post DHL came out on top among the country’s biggest 30 companies and was also best of Europe’s top 100 companies. Other leading German names include BASF, Allianz, Bayer, Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
Only British companies are on a par with the Germans in Europe, though in the U.K. there tends to be greater emphasis on branding and engagement over substance (and British companies may benefit from our research being conducted in English). Nordic companies stand out in terms of online transparency – as opposed to limiting sustainability communications to the publication of PDF reports that few read – but don’t often go beyond. Switzerland, although home to many multinationals, suffers because of the number of companies not reporting systematically on sustainability, as in Italy.
Germany’s top 30 companies tend to show a fair balance of the ingredients that make “good” communications. But it was surprising that they outperformed in terms of “distinctiveness”. While it’s to be expected that a major brand like BMW invests in making its sustainability story come to life with videos about mobility and renewables, it’s interesting how insurance and asset management giant Allianz seeks to explain its commitment and engage on topics like demographic change and responsible finance. Sustainability communications is just as important in service sectors and in B2B contexts: stakeholders are all human after all.
While the “forced” adoption of materiality assessments by companies following Global Reporting Initiative G4 guidelines is helping corporate teams open their eyes and ears to what’s going on outside their company, many are still stuck in an internally focused, box-ticking exercise. In these cases, distinctive sustainability communications remains a distant prospect. That’s because of the need to understand stakeholders, their needs and expectations, and how digital is changing the nature of interactions, making interaction more immediate, intense and personal.