As I prepare to speak at PR Fest in Edinburgh in mid-June, I've been reflecting on the PR sector's evolution over the past couple of years. It is finally waking to the fact that being able to communicate social and environmental issues is no longer a fluffy, niche skill or a ‘nice to have.’
Public and customer expectations, regulations and headlines about climate change, ocean plastics, human rights and a range of other factors mean it’s risky to stay silent or communicate badly about related issues. Many businesses are waking up to the fact that truly sustainable organisations are outperforming less sustainable ones on profit, on customer and employee engagement and retention and on long-term shareholder value. Sustainability and social responsibility are not seen as token campaigns but as increasingly core to business objectives. Being able to communicate well about these complex issues is key to any professional, strategic approach in PR or marketing.
But you don’t have to just believe me. Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer showed a dramatic drop globally in public trust for government, business, media and NGOs. Their 2018 report showed no change - and underlined the strategic importance of communications by saying ‘Silence is now deeply dangerous.’ Their research also found that leaders who speak out on ‘trust issues’ – for example, social and environmental ones - regained some public trust, again underlining the importance of communicating well in these key areas.
After several high-profile PR scandals like Bell Pottinger’s last year, it’s finally sunk in that ethics, transparency and issues like climate change, human rights and protecting natural resources are crucial for the communications sector to wrap its head around. The PRCA recently announced its 2018 focus would be on establishing the social and ethical value and purpose of PR, because, as they stated in their announcement:
“Moving forward, successful organisations won’t only succeed based on their innovations, or even by being seen to do the right thing. Reputation management is no longer enough. Everything from internal culture to the way an organisation conducts business around the world will have equal impact on a brand’s bottom line.
“As communicators, it is our job to help the C-suite and Board members identify the business imperative of the ethical imperative. In PR, we ourselves need to get better at this in order to do better.”
I’ve spent my career focusing on social and environmental issues and, more recently, have worked with leaders and communications professionals to build their skills around communicating about social and environmental sustainability. Most recently, with the PRCA Scotland and Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group, a half-day workshop on social and environmental communications, which PRFest’s Laura Sutherland was a panel member.
Siobhan Dunn, Communications Director for Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group, gives the reason behind this work:
“We recognise that the world is changing very rapidly, organisations and brands are increasingly held very sharply to account, often on complex and abstract issues – which they might not yet understand very well. Communicators in all sectors need to be able to craft a message and communicate about issues as diverse as climate change, modern slavery or circular economy. And professionals need to be able to advise and support organisations and brands to ensure their core values are strategically aligned with the issues that matter to their stakeholders.”
PRFest’s 2018 focus is ‘putting the human back into public relations’ and it is absolutely timely. This is a great opportunity to bring the PR industry together and learn, share and discuss why and how to communicate social and environmental sustainability effectively.
I’ll be presenting a framework for practical application by communications people. And, if people only remember one thing, I want it to be this: being effective at communicating social and environmental sustainability issues isn’t rocket science. But it requires a systematic approach and a level of understanding of the issues that are risky to get wrong and potentially very rewarding to get right. Ask the right questions, apply good communication principles, act strategically and you’ll be leading the pack.
Whether you’re an agency professional, an in-house communications officer, a director of communications or a spokesperson, it’s time to polish existing skills or gain some new ones. You have a strategic role to play and you can be ahead of the curve. It’s up to you.
I'm working on a book - a practical guide - on precisely this topic, so watch this space for news of how you can get your hands on a copy in late 2019.
PR Fest takes place June 14-15 in Edinburgh. For more information, click here.