[I was invited by Ethical Value to be a guest blogger, this post was originally written for, and published there, but the content remains my own and I thought I would share it here.]
“There’s a kind of self-fulfilling perception to it,” said Robert Lichter, a pioneering media-bias researcher who heads the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. “Once people see something they don’t like, they notice things that reinforce the belief that there’s bias” in the media as a whole.
While the above quote supports politics, the truth is that our personal filter (conservative, liberal, eco-warrior and corporate raider alike) determines just how any messaging will resonate with us; and that is precisely my point. As a communicator I often marvel how the truly well-intentioned manage to sabotage their altruistic intent, while the commercially focused manage to leverage all the ‘goodness’ of the sustainability message to greater profit. (In this I am focused only on messaging and not on the financial means to cover every eventuality and thus to dominate the landscape.)
“However great an evil immorality may be, we must not forget that it is not without its beneficial consequences. It is only through extremes that men can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue.”
Sadly many of those (thoroughly) invested in sustainability, in protection of the planet and its renewal, whose works span every aspect of driving ethos toward a common standard of good, are very much like (highly skilled surgeons or) engineers in the technology sector with whom I have worked – infused with passion and intelligence they make the tragic error (from ego-centricity) that they can also create compelling, succinct messaging which will engage both constituent audiences as well as the broader general public. It simply isn’t so. To establish that ‘middle path of wisdom and virtue’ demands cohesion, breadth of skill and continuity, the satisfactory resolution of a problem demands active communication – (not as exampled with this link) and it requires the development of communications which while not offensive to the ‘choir’ will encourage the ‘to-be-converted’. There is an art and science to this. You have to be capable of switching the flavor of Kool-Aid to accommodate specific tastes! Bridging the space between the über-conscience and the corporate bottom line must draw upon our common humanity and our unified status as stakeholders– a precept of effective management fostered by R. Edward Freeman in his influential book Strategic management: a stakeholder approach published in 1984.
The truest tragedy of sustainability communications, like our filters over choices related to primary source for news and information, begets the ‘birds of a feather, flock together’ syndrome. The message stays within a group already pre-disposed to the content; yet we are all stakeholders in sustainability. Whether beating back human trafficking, climate change, fracking, Monsanto, big Agra-business and beverage companies over labeling or the total removal of GMO or the warmer and fuzzier challenges related to clean water, children’s education and immunization, the ‘eco-warrior’ is viewed as an extremist – even as all humanity would benefit from the changes being championed. Ironic isn’t it? And, as with the old adage about to mark true wealth is to be able to count on one hand those people you could call at 3 in the morning if you were in trouble, so too a resonate message for a cause our filter deems worthy will drive us toward engagement and support.
Twenty years ago, what has now morphed into the sustainability dialogue was pitched as ‘cause-related marketing’ and those companies whose leadership ‘got it’ understood that alignment with something ‘warm and fuzzy’ was very good for the bottom line – especially with tax loopholes which allowed for the costs of deployment to be written off as charitable contributions or operating expenses. Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) takes cause-related marketing one step further – or should – and applies equally to the not-for-profit as well as for profit segments of our society. CSR ideally is the active cultivation of a corporate conscience embraced by every employee from the mailroom staff to the corner office occupant that ‘doing good’ because it is the right thing to do and in doing so subsequently creates benefit for the corporation. I am of the opinion that embracing CSR is the surest path to creating not only broad stakeholder value but ultimately improving the full breadth of perception including employment branding (which fosters retention and mitigates costs related to hiring and training), AR, IR and PR, shareholder value, sales as well as fostering change for the greater good.
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