Choosing the Right Channel for Your Sustainability Communications

We thought this blog post from 2013 had some great tips, and we wanted to share it a second time! Enjoy:

It's not enough to just have a great sustainability story to tell. You also need to know where to tell it. Choosing the right channel for your sustainability communications is a critical element of your sustainability strategy, so think carefully about which options are right for your organization.

Parsing your message

The first step in the process is to identify all the pieces of your sustainability story. In most cases, it's helpful to start with the big picture and work your way down to each granular detail.

For example, you may start with a stand-alone sustainability report. Within that report are discrete sections like the CEO's overview about what sustainability means to your company, tables that summarize your key sustainability goals and targets, case studies, and graphs showing sustainability performance trends over time.

Within your organization, you may organize sustainability information differently. You may have internal policies and guidelines, events and competitions, and visual reminders around your facility that encourage employees to go green.

Now put all of these discrete items and initiatives into a list. Next to each item, identify three things:

Audiences that might be interested. For example, a sustainability report is ideal for communicating to internal and external stakeholders. Policy documents about green employee benefits, however, may be suitable primarily for internal audiences. Likewise case studies of community outreach initiatives and charitable giving may be of interest at the local level, but not particularly compelling at the corporate level--or perhaps only in smaller doses.

Reason you are sharing. For each item on the list, it's important to clearly specify what you hope to achieve by sharing the information contained within. Are you trying to demonstrate leadership in a particular sustainability area? Are you trying to explain why something went wrong? Are you trying to solicit input from a particular stakeholder group? Getting clear on your purpose is key here.

Level of engagement you seek. For some items, your goal may simply be to disclose some information to the public. In others, a core consideration may be to engage and have a dialogue with the audience. At this stage of the process, it's important to identify how much back-and-forth you'd like to have with the people receiving your material.

Choosing a Platform

Once you have a good handle on your sustainability communication materials, it's time to choose your channels. For better or for worse, you have a lot of options to consider. It's smart to choose several platforms in order to engage different audiences, at the same time, don't spread yourself too thin. You want to be able to engage appropriately, and sometimes that means devoting significant resources to the conversations and dialogue that takes place after you share the initial information.

Here are some of the most popular channels for sustainability communications:

Your company website. Your organization's website is the first place your audience will check when seeking out sustainability information about your product, your people, and your operations. It is the hub through which all other sustainability communication should flow. So make sure that in addition to having a dedicated sustainability hub within your website, you also have it set up to connect with other platforms -- particularly related to social media. In general your website serves primarily to push out information, and is not usually a place in which robust discussion takes place between you and your audience. It is important however to make sure that readers have an opportunity to contact you with questions and concerns, as well as compliments. Make sure it's easy for them to reach you.

Your company Facebook page. Facebook is definitely a place where conversations happen, so make sure you're ready and willing to engage with your audience when you post things. Facebook is best for sharing quick stories, photos, and results. It's also a great place to ask questions, solicit feedback, and learn more about your stakeholders. However, it's not a great place for selling stuff (so don't push your green products unless you have a really clever pitch) or for diving deeply into a complex topic. So keep it simple, frank, and personable.

Your Twitter feed. With only 140 characters in which to share your message, Twitter is not the place to communicate long and detailed stories. It is, however, a great place to "hook" audiences and drive them back to your website (or other long-form platform). It's also a place to engage in one-on-one conversations with fans. But beware! Once you start to use twitter, you're obligated to respond when people reach out to you on that platform. Make sure you have enough resources to keep up with the flow, and smart social media policies and training so that staff can respond appropriately to both positive and negative feedback.

External publications. While focusing your sustainability communications on company-run platforms, don't neglect outside channels. Trade magazines, industry publications, issue-focused journals, and sustainability blogs and websites are often hungry for real-life case studies, op-eds, and press releases. Identify a handful of these channels that suit your communications goals, internal resources, and target audiences. Whether it's a one-off article, or a monthly column in your local industry magazine, using external publications is a great way to broaden your reach.

Live events. While most sustainability communications happens in written format, it's a mistake to ignore the opportunity to share your message with live audiences. Networking breakfasts, conference keynotes, industry roundtables, online webinars, Chamber of Commerce events, trade shows, and sustainability fairs are all places to get in front of real-life people. This kind of interaction builds a different level of credibility and trust, and gives your audience a real sense of the people behind the message. Live events, however, can occasionally lead to heated interactions, so make sure that your people are armed with the information, tools, and resources to respond appropriately. Sometimes that means having fact sheets or talking points at hand. Other times it means having a set of pre-rehearsed statements to defuse or redirect the speaker. For example, "that is a great question, but a complex one. Because of our limited time I'd prefer to follow up with you directly after the event. Please make sure to catch me before I leave and provide your email address so that I can get back to you with a more complete answer."

Broaden Your Options

Of course, there are dozens more options to choose from and it is impossible to cover them all in a single article. Podcasts, LinkedIn, Google+, location-based services like Foursquare, blogging, and roadshows are other popular options. The key is to make sure you match your communication channel with your communication goals. And the most important piece of advice: don't begin a conversation unless you have the resources to carry it through. In inviting people to a dialogue and then disappearing (because you lack the time, or are not prepared to answer tough questions) is a sure recipe for disappointment. So think through not just the communication itself, but the entire lifecycle of the message.

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