Back to Basics: The Ins and Outs of Effective Sustainability Communications

October 30, 2017


Do you ever sit back, scratch your head, and wonder how the hell some ads ever see the light of day? From Pepsi’s whitewashing racial injustice in the United States to Dove literally washing someone white, advertising firms seem to be living the “all-PR-is-good-PR” mantra. How on Earth did we get here?


At Fulcrum, we believe advertising has gone off the rails. To get us back on track, communication professionals far and wide need to reestablish three of the key, but widely forgotten, basics of our craft.

#1. Refocus Our Attention on the Stakeholder


We’ve said this before and we’ll keep saying it: the stakeholder needs to be central to everything. It doesn’t matter if this is the consumer, government, or civil society. If you’re not addressing their particular drivers than what’s the point of what you’re doing?

#2. From "Yes, Sir" to "Yes, And"


When you think about some of these epically flawed ad campaigns, it’s crazy to think of all the meetings and approvals it would have gone through. That means there were dozens of people that saw the ad and said, what a great idea! Was there not one person in the Dove pitch meeting raising the obvious implications of racism? Did no one see how the Black Lives’ Matter movement could interpret Kendall Jenner’s peace offering as insulting?


Of course there were. The problem is that people were too afraid to say anything. This is particularly true in Asia, where top-down business culture means you never question authority. We’re operating in a world of “Yes, Sir” (and yes, I do mean sir as most executives are still men). Where we need to get to is an environment of “Yes, And.”


Studying improv with Second Stage Theater in New York, the first rule I learned was “Yes, And.” You never said no, but, or if. An actor’s job was always to supplement and improve on what had been said. In business, we call this iteration and innovation. We’re all smart individuals, well worth our hourly rates. Yet in communications, we often take the path of least resistance. Some ad exec came up with a pitch? Great, let’s go with that. Let’s move to a more iterative process, where we question and provide constructive feedback to really generate something impactful.

#3. Looping It All Together


It’s interesting to see just how much the 24-hour news cycle has influenced our thinking. Instead of playing the long game, most industry focuses on quick wins. If you make a mistake it’s not such a big deal because people will forget in a few days. I’d guess most have already forgotten some of the more tragic examples out there. That’s because we’ve neglected the importance of the feedback loop in our communication work.


Marketing and communications are meant to open up a channel between a company and its stakeholders. What we’re trying to do is generate a conversation to address concerns and build advocacy. The Holy Grail Opportunity is to use feedback to iteratively improve our business operations. This creates a virtuous cycle and adds transparency in all we do.


Today, though, companies focus too much on going viral. The worse something is, often the better it performs. Sure, this makes for a short-term win but it doesn’t necessarily ingratiate you to your consumers. Instead, it’s time to return to feedback loops in our communications. Let’s do away with the expensive KOLs and sound-bite adverts. Relearn how to interact with your stakeholders in a way that’s true to brand, fun, and honest.


Fulcrum’s Exploration series discusses critical issues facing today’s sustainability professionals. The goal of the series is to educate, inform, and generate discussion. If you liked some of these ideas, Fulcrum has plenty more. Set up a complimentary strategy session to dive deep into issues specific to your organization.

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