Sustainable Sustainability Efforts: Look Inside First

By Jennifer Lucado (@Jennifer_Lucado)

One thing that really gets my blood boiling is when someone implies – or, you know, says outright – that PR is nothing but spin. Yesterday I read a great post on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog: Using PR as an agent for change in corporate sustainability. To be fair, I’m probably biased. When someone is arguing that PR professionals can be actual agents of change rather than being seen as “purveyors of greenwash and cover up” …. well, I’m in. Because I definitely want to achieve the former, and I want nothing to do with the latter.

However, one point in the post really struck me:

“Set and communicate a clear direction on sustainability, which liberates people throughout your organization to talk passionately and freely about what you’re doing. They are your best advocates.”

I kept thinking back to that for the rest of the day. With sustainability, it’s easy to get caught up in what your efforts mean to the world outside your doors. But as anyone who’s ever tried to launch an internal program knows, you’re only ever as good as your employees. If they’re in, you’ll find your way to success. If they’re not, you’ll never truly get off the ground. So what do employees need to start on the path to becoming sustainability advocates? Here are a few important – but often overlooked – basics.

Give them a (selfish) reason to care.

Reason 1: we have an obligation to be responsible corporate citizens and do our part to protect our earth. Great! Everyone feels better. Now, give them more. There are many reasons to pursue a corporate sustainability program. Don’t be afraid to share the business objectives and benefits (there should always be some in an effective sustainability program). Make a clear connection with the company culture, and show why the program is a good fit – or a much-needed refresh. Demonstrate that its success is a priority for senior leadership and specify how they will be holding employees accountable (like Intel, Shell and Vancity). Start with the heart – but end with the head.

Give them specific direction.

For those of us in charge of writing stirring themes and one-pagers that make the heart soar, it’s easy to get caught up in the fluff. But at the end of the day, employees need to know what your sustainability program means for them. So after the stirring and soaring, don’t forget to be very straightforward about how it impacts their daily lives. What they need to do, specifically. What’s changing. What might present some challenges and how to move past them. Take all the guesswork out, and leave no questions in anyone’s mind about what their role is. Less confusion = more compliance and less complaining.

Give them a voice.

Keep a pulse on your program – not only through business metrics and outcomes, but by surveys and, depending on your company’s size, focus groups. Identify successful initiatives and see what you might be able to expand or mimic elsewhere. Suss out any issues or frustrations and get to the root causes. Listen carefully and be as responsive as you can. And when you update and evolve your program, share with employees why you’re making changes – and their role in making it better. The only thing better than being heard is being the catalyst for change.

Pretty simple – but very effective. No spin, no greenwashing. (It’s on a 2013 trend list and everything.)

Image: gothick_matt via Flickr, CC 2.0

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