The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as follows: “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”
That being said, during my extensive tenure in PR, I have come to the realisation that focusing on a sustainable future has as much relevance in the field of Public Relations as it does in preserving our Earth. Sustainability PR is a new corporate communication discipline with implications for corporate reputation and organisational success.
In public relations, sustainability is the key to effective business management. Its brand increasing powers improve its business margins and mitigate the negative impacts of corporate behavior on the community and the planet. Many companies have recognised that they require societal approval, or what some would call, “a societal license” such as the support or consent of stakeholders in order to operate effectively.
As such, there are two factors that underpin how and why PR works with sustainability in mind:
Firstly, there is the question of reputation. It is important to note that the impact of a company’s reputation on its license to operate may be either positive or negative, but it is stakeholder expectation or perception that drives reputation. The same goes for sustainability; some call it a trend, while others swear by organic products and environmentally-friendly brands as a lifestyle choice. As such, the power of PR is crucial in shaping the positive reputation of sustainability for companies and individuals.
Secondly, it must be remembered that reputation is ‘contagious’. One person’s perception will be affected by other people’s recommendations and criticisms. It is easy for society to jump on the “bandwagon” of a positive or negative issue surrounding the reputation of a company or individual. This makes reputation management even more powerful. With the massive growth of media and social media, stakeholders have been given easy access to vast amounts of information that affects their assessment of a company’s reputation. They assess that reputation using the metrics most applicable to them, be it financial performance, quality of offering, customer service, price, brand social responsibility and sustainability amongst others.
As a public relations practitioner who is also a consumer, I am witnessing the power of sustainability PR from a dual perspective. Tasks as simple as grocery shopping have made me realise how my own consumer habits have changed due to my own personal investment of time and efforts in supporting sustainability. Now, when I shop, I look for certain words such as “environment friendly” or “recycled paper” on the labels to suit my organic lifestyle.
All public relations practitioners should understand the benefits of sustainability. Once we understand what it means and how it can be useful to public relations efforts we can get a glimpse at the role of sustainability in the future of businesses. Sustainability is no longer a trend, or just a business maneuver; it is a necessity to effectively run a business in this day and age.