One of the most common phrases I hear from companies is ‘we’re doing a lot, but just not getting the credit for it’. This usually comes from firms who watch the darlings of the CSR world (you all know who they are) popping up weekly with new initiatives, webinars, conference slots or awards. There are only four or five big companies in the world who make sustainability their core message – and it’s therefore no surprise that they tend to secure above average air-time for their efforts. They’re a bit like those annoying kids who always won all the prizes on sports day.
The reality is that these teachers’ pets (OK, let’s name one, M&S) aren’t always the best at everything they do. In some areas they may well be behind the competition. But they’ll be the first to admit it. In fact, they may actually communicate proactively on that very point. They understand that they are articulating a journey, and that this means regular breaks in the journey to share progress so far and discuss the bumpy road ahead. Communicating failure (which is often systemic not about lack of corporate willpower) can be as powerful as trumpeting progress. M&S is very good at both.
Let’s be clear too: companies that want to gain external recognition for sustainability need to spend more time out of the office than in it. There is no other magic bullet. Mike Barry is out and about all the time. Some of the time he’s presenting the M&S story. But a lot of the time he’s listening. Watching for the next big thing, understanding the emerging agendas. And it’s not just him – other M&S people get out and about too. Combine that stakeholder sophistication with PR, advertising, marketing and a digital strategy and you’ll soon get the credit. And rightly so.
Telling the sustainability story means assigning resources to it. For all the theoretical cheapness of the digital age, to influence the influencers means getting out there, standing on platforms, engaging in discussion and debate. It requires a sustained rolling programme of communications, backed up by clever brand strategies and blocking time in the CEO’s diary to get him or her out there arguing for sustainability. Sponsoring an award here and asking your PR firm to find you a speaker slot there is a total waste of time. Don’t bother.
It’s also important to join up the message. Many companies are doing a range of good things, but they are often disjointed efforts with no unifying theme, platform or name. Everyone’s heard of ‘Plan A’ in the responsible business world. What’s Tesco’s thing called again? Morrisons? And who is the Mike Barry at those last two? Oh yes, that’s right. There isn’t one.
There are actually other companies doing as much work behind the scenes as M&S do. On some agendas, more. But we may never know who they are, at least until they stop moaning and get out there and tell their stories. Perhaps those who don’t aren’t quite as good as they think they are.