PR’s role in corporate sustainability

Lorne KletkeBy Lorne Kletke, APR and long-time CPRS member and former CPRS MB board member

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and issues of sustainability have been firmly entrenched in mainstream conversation for some time. How has your organization responded, and how has PR played a role?

A growing portion of consumers are basing their decisions on more than price, service and reliability these days. They want to know how a company relates to its suppliers, employees, the environment and community-at-large. They, along with even more engaged interest groups, are concerned about corporate sustainability.

An easy way to picture corporate sustainability is with the concept of a triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. Organizations pursuing the triple bottom line are looking for not only financial returns but also social justice and environmental protection. It follows that if your focus shifts from one bottom line to three, your PR strategy likely needs change as well.

Nonresponsive organizations risk missing out on opportunities and losing customers in the short term. More proactive competitors will be positioning themselves as the preferred choice for customers and stakeholders sensitive to sustainability issues. These competitors will benefit not only from increased sales, fundraising results or whatever you are competing against them for. They will also benefit from the process of engagement, building trust with their stakeholders, and a deep knowledge of the issues and opportunities at play. All the while, the nonresponsive organization will be falling behind.

As bad as that sounds, there are even worse long-term risks in ignoring CSR. Such an organization is not engaging its stakeholders in a meaningful way. This leaves the organization vulnerable to risks in its operating environment and oblivious to new opportunities.

Hopefully your PR sense tingled at that last statement. As we know, public relations is about bridging concerns and interests between an organization and its stakeholders. A weak (or no) CSR strategy is a tell-tale sign of a weak public relations strategy or role in the organization. Where does your organization fall within this picture?

We are (or should be) in a position to identify and bring CSR issues to the attention of senior management, providing context and communicating relative urgency and importance. Certainly, gaining buy-in and perspective from other key departments is also important.

PR can truly offer unique value to an organization looking to firm up its CSR approach. Consider that CSR extends into all functional areas of an organization, and involves internal and external stakeholders. The people best positioned to coordinate such an effort naturally reside in the PR area.

Once management is on side, PR can be instrumental in engaging internal and external stakeholders in order to come up with a well-conceived sustainability strategy. This is more than a green-washing effort or making the status quo look good. And it is so much more than increasing sales. It is about ensuring that an organization is responsive to the environments in which it operates. Such a strategy takes time, commitment and genuine effort – and all the skill that PR professionals have to offer.