If 2019 was a turning point for recognition of the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven home both the devasting consequences of inequality and the positive difference that can be made when business leaders step forwards.
The response to the pandemic has manifested itself in many forms; from informally supporting neighbours to pivoting production lines and rapidly organising systems to work from home.
Reflecting the times, media sentiment has been unforgiving for businesses not behaving well. The Financial Times quickly established a ‘saints and sinners’ call out, publicly naming organisations not acting in the interest of others and continuing with its Moral Money commentary. The UK’s Sunday Times and others have profiled those who are perceived to be taking from the public purse while making a profit.
In January 2021, new research showed that businesses are now recognised as the most trusted institutions with high expectation that they will address and solve today’s challenges; 68 percent of people said that CEOs should step in where government does not fix societal problems. This, combined with the changed-world reality that employees and customers continue to experience, means there is no going back – and has strong implications for corporate communications.
The phrase ‘building back better’ has been rapidly overused and leaders need to recognise that the success of their business depends on finding and living a sustainable purpose. There is not one way to achieving this – and each organisation needs to use its individual strengths and opportunities in the best way they can.
What are you doing?
Across the world, there is an on-going drumbeat of announcements about carbon emission reduction pledges and new solutions being trialled. This level of news will increase significantly over 2021 as we build to the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November. Every leader needs to be ready for the question “what are you doing to cut your carbon emissions?”.
Whether enabling colleagues to get involved and feel proud, helping consumers feel positive about their purchases, or ensuring the organisation is part of a low carbon supply chain, action to address climate change is now expected – and an increasing part of procurement decision making. From reducing plastic use or food waste to creating new manufacturing systems, stakeholder trust will ultimately come down to an evidence-based reduction in carbon emissions.
Similar ‘what’ questions can be expected across the breadth of social challenges: diversity and inclusion; employment of young people; supporting local communities. Leaders need to be able to talk about what they are doing to make a difference and show everyone from investors to internal audiences that they are working actively across the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) agenda.
Along with the what, comes why. It is impossible to tackle every issue with the same level of resourcing. Deciding where to put the most effort should be determined by an objective review of both risks to the organisation, and ability to make a positive difference.
A clear why starts with organisational purpose and is backed by values; it needs to translate into reasons that support the organisation’s success as well as supporting society and the environment. The last 12 months have shown the value of empathy and strength of leaders who care – and this is critical to tone and style of communications.
The reason why the B Corp movement is accelerating so fast is the decision-making strength that comes with creating a ‘mission lock’ in a business‘s constitution, so that directors are responsible for all stakeholders as well as shareholders.
Recent research conducted by Forster Communications and the Charities Aid Foundation also highlighted the importance of support at a governance level for sustainability priorities. As businesses recover from the pandemic, the challenge of getting investment signed off will rely on a supportive board.
But making pledges is not enough – they have to be translated into action.
The shocking revelation of the fashion empire BooHoo using modern slaves in the UK to support its supply chain reiterated the imperative of backing high level statements with through-the-line transparency. This focus on how organisations are delivering their goals is only going to increase, and investors are looking at impact metrics to back ESG statements with much more scrutiny.
Answering ‘how’ to the complex, multi-stranded nature of sustainability issues is difficult with many requiring systems level change that involves cross sector organisations. But the inspiring example of the vaccines created in response to the pandemic needs to be a constant reminder of what can happen if something is prioritised and given new rules of engagement. Complexity is not an excuse for inertia.
Similarly, the importance of collective action has been reiterated over 2020 – working as an integrated part of a community whether that’s local, global or sectoral. Leading as a generous collaborator will not only create new solutions but also help individuals to build trust and a wider organisational culture of participation.
Working life for many has changed and there is a unique opportunity for business leaders to embrace this going forwards and embed new behaviours; from flexible working to changes in travel policy.
Ultimately this is about leaders taking responsibility for change now. How they run their business and the evidence they have to show the impact of their decisions will sit at the heart of a trusted reputation, an organisation people want to work with and a legacy to be proud of.
It is not about having all the answers, but it is about openly finding – and then sharing – them. Sustainability action needs to sit at the heart of corporate communications.
Amanda Powell-Smith, CEO of Forster Communications
 Edelman Trust Barometer 2021
 Bold Thinking, Brave Action – CAF and Forster Communications, 2020