Rarely are we privy to such swift, complete, and nonsensical unraveling as that of the Trump administration this past week. Through their own admonition, the campaign colluded with the Russians to gain an upper hand over their rival, Hilary Clinton. Now, it is no longer a question of “did it happen,” but rather “to what extent.”
The person at the center of all this is Donald Trump, Jr. He’s managed to provide university professors with decades of case study material in what not to do when communicating with the public. If we can take a minute to ignore the administration’s position on climate change and the environment, though, sustainability professionals can also learn a few lessons in how we approach our own communication’s work.
Be honest from the beginning
We all know honesty is the best policy, but this isn’t always so easy in practice. When it comes to sustainability communications, much like politics we would prefer to liberally apply facts as it suits our image. The administration has gone back and forth on its involvement with Russia so many times now they have lost all credibility. Would admitting to dealings at the beginning have gotten them out of trouble? Probably not. But, would it have saved them the headaches of today? Absolutely.
Sustainability reports, as much as we may loathe them, have been instrumental in keeping companies honest from the beginning. This is because good reports are rich in historical data the reader can trace from year to year. Hopefully they see an improvement in operations. If not, at least shortcomings are there in black-and-white for organizations to deal with. China-based Yingli Solar is a great example of honesty in reporting. The company knew they would not have capacity to gather all information from their global facilities before publishing their first report. Instead of fudging data, or not reporting at all, Yingli acknowledged this fact and presented a multi-year action plan.
Be transparent for the right reasons
Of all the mistakes Donald Jr. made this past week, none was so grave as trying to beat The New York Times to press. Catching wind the paper would release damning e-mails, Trump decided to release them himself in the spirit of “transparency.” Instead of coming off as magnanimous, he appeared to most as impulsive and ignorant of his own clear wrongdoing.
Go back in time just a few years, to a not-so-little factory in Shenzhen run by a company called Foxconn. You would be hard pressed to find many Americans able to link Foxconn and Apple. That is, until Apple tried to be transparent for the wrong reasons. Following a spate of worker suicides driven by draconian management practices, Apple conducted a half-hearted audit of its supplier that found it to be mostly compliant. Steve Jobs went as far as to say Foxconn was “pretty nice” and “…not a sweatshop.” This called attention to a number of underlying issues, such as excessive working hours, inhumane conditions, lack of pay, dissonant with the image of sleek, expensive smartphones half a world away. The media, governments, and civil society had a field day getting to the bottom of what was going on at Foxconn.
Usually when a parent says their child is a good person, one would take it with a grain of salt but accept it nonetheless. Unless, of course, when your dad is Donald Trump. As his campaign and administration are at the center of the Russia probe, any endorsement by him towards others in the probe does more harm than good. When he said of Donald Jr., “…he is a high-quality person…” not only did it sound insincere, but also self-serving.
Endorsements matter in sustainability communications, too. Getting the right ones, though, can be tricky. Internal endorsements are great when trying to drum up employee support, especially if they come from top management. For an outsider, however, executive names won’t mean much (unless it’s Elon Musk). Getting civil society actors, industry association heads, and thought leaders in your space will go much further when talking to the general public.
Most of the time, we would also recommend staying away from celebrity influencers. There’s always an exception to a rule, though, and that exception is the Wild Aid China campaign. The non-profit organization has expertly engaged local celebrities like Yao Ming, prominent international figures like David Beckham and Prince William, and other global activists to drive their work. These endorsements are certainly ones that count.
As the fallout from this week’s revelations continues to unfold, keep an eye out for other useful lessons. At least that way, we can make the best of a bad situation.