Substance key to sustainability plan

Green is the new black.

Green is the new black.

Protecting the world's natural resources has become a widely embraced priority. Such leading corporations and Edelman clients as DuPont, GE, and Wal-Mart have launched major sustainability initiatives.

Others will no doubt follow suit, which will naturally make it all the more challenging for companies to differentiate themselves. Valuable white-space opportunities nevertheless remain, particularly for those companies that recognize the essential elements of a successful sustainability program:

Conduct primary research. Market research will enable a company to discern the perceived weaknesses and strengths of the program and to test its positioning, messaging, and goals. Research will also establish a baseline against which to measure the progress of the communications efforts, while enabling companies to understand how the program will support their corporate positioning.

Develop substantive goals and performance metrics. The profile of a company's sustainability efforts is predicated largely on the relative significance of its anticipated outcomes, as well as the extent to which the outcomes can be measured. Companies should establish customer-facing goals and corresponding metrics that are subject to independent verification.

Engage third parties. NGO, think tank and academic leaders play an essential role in the success of sustainability programs, not merely as validators, but collaborators. Such figures can speak to current and future environmental challenges with unparalleled authority and insight. In so doing, they can provide a broader, more relevant context for a sustainability program.

Enunciate the profit imperative. For a company to assert it is taking steps to protect the environment is like saying it is committed to financial transparency. Both now are threshold obligations. Companies that tie sustainability programs to their growth strategies will be viewed as serious and committed stewards of the environment.

Demonstrate the commitment of the CEO. In addition to serving as a primary spokesperson, the CEO should play a hand in shaping the company's sustainability program. The CEO, too, should talk about the company's sustainability efforts, along with their ability to increase revenues, in media interviews, speeches, annual reports, and other communications.

Remain committed and transparent. A company will be judged - and leadership ultimately ascribed to it - on the basis of its long-term performance. Companies, therefore, need to report on their progress in achieving their sustain- ability goals with the same rigor and acuity with which they report on their financial performance.

Business plays a vital role in protecting the environment. By reducing their footprint, bringing new technologies to market, and influencing the value chains in which they operate, increasingly more companies are making significant strides.

Those that have received the highest praise for their sustainability efforts are foremost concerned with producing results that benefit their shareholders, customers, and employees. Media coverage is secondary. Savvy PR maximizes the promotional impact of corporate sustainability programs, but the extent to which they are embraced is largely the result of their substance and output.

Robert Knott is an EVP in Edelman's Washington, DC, office.

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