Driving Reputation with Sustainability

By Holly Wallis

This year, the United Nations’ 24th Conference of the Parties event administrators took the bold step of introducing a “People’s Seat” at the conference. The Polish President of the event hailed the initiative as a way “to represent the voice of the people… during the first ever truly digital COP”.

“Take Your Seat” was an excellent strategy for boosting the reputation of the Conferences of the Parties. It helped drive the image of this multinational political entity towards a modern, transparent and caring organisation – three crucial reputational traits that are increasingly expected by stakeholders.

The initiative demonstrated how the event administrators aligned themselves with popular trends and sought to meet the reputation required of modern entities. With the recent wave of rejection towards authority figures, including scientific experts, it was appropriate to choose a notable individual with, perhaps, a less ‘technical’ understanding of the subject and strong communication skills. The perfect candidate was found in the form of naturalist David Attenborough.

The event administrators also proved their desire to recognise increased demands of transparency. Internal organisational procedures are now generally considered to be suspicious if not made public. The breaking down of boundaries between leaders and stakeholders is the natural result of a world increasingly interconnected and ‘sped up’. Though the public had access to what was discussed at previous COPs through the website, this incorporation of its voice at the event itself showed there was a two-way process.

Further, in choosing Sir David Attenborough, the event organisers were able to tactfully “borrow” reputation. The documentarian is not only a national treasure in the UK, but one of the most highly respected personalities worldwide. Without doubt, he has left a lasting imprint on how millions see the natural world through decades of filmmaking. Further, event administrators were likely aware that Attenborough was able to strike a different tone and could perhaps access a broader audience, compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, UN Messenger of Peace.

In the video that Attenborough plays during his speech, people from all walks of life describe how climate change and pollution is detrimentally affecting their lives. In one of the clips, we are reminded of the increasing severity of natural disasters when a woman points to a pile of rubble, saying “this used to be my home…”. By bringing together so many unique perspectives and people from around the world, the event organisers show their wide-reaching concern and awareness. This video demonstrated a strong sense of organisational storytelling. It was underpinned by the intimate, human element of the Paris agreement’s objective, while simultaneously communicating a clear understanding of the real stakeholders.

The “Take Your Seat” initiative championed by David Attenborough serves as a prime example of how to build an organisation’s reputation through the pillar of sustainability.

There is a vast sum of information on man-made environmental damage in the public domain, with global news reports related to the issue, published almost daily. As a result, stakeholders want to see that private companies, especially those that rely on non-renewable energy, are doing what they can to curb the accelerating escalation of climate change. As such, in recent years, we have seen an increased prominence of discussions on corporate sustainability measures in the boardroom. Companies that fall behind their competitors in terms of their sustainability efforts lose trust with the public, hence, for example, why we have seen so many fast-food chains recently ditching plastic straws. To maintain a strong reputation and public trust, it is critical that companies embed a sustainability focus into their business practices and communicate this effectively.

Some tactics that private companies can draw upon, as demonstrated by the COP 24 “Take Your Seat” initiative include:

  • Selecting a strong spokesperson – to enhance your reputation through your sustainability agenda, you need an advocate who is charismatic and dedicated to the cause.
  • Maintaining loyalty to Sustainability – make clear your company’s commitment to tackling climate change and reducing pollution. Millennials will total 75% of the worldwide population by 2030. This is a generation that truly cares about tackling climate change. It is important to show dedication to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to attract new talent and satisfy younger investors.
  • Ensuring mass appeal – choose an agenda with a mass appeal. David Attenborough’s intergenerational, international acclaim is the gold standard, but it is equally important to use digital technology effectively to engage a larger audience.
  • Embedding a trigger – if possible, aim to embed a trigger, such as a logo, an advert or a campaign to form immediate associations between your brand and the environmental efforts your company takes.
  • Taking data seriously – the national leaders of the COP base their international agreement on concrete scientific data. It is not worth risking your corporate reputation by using data dishonestly or dismissing “inconvenient truths”. One of the rare upsets at this year’s COP 24 was the refusal of the event administrators to accede to a new scientific report that was released during the conference and contradicted its scientific baselines.

People trust people. Selecting a strong spokesperson for one’s CSR cause should not be overlooked when seeking to maintain a strong corporate reputation, as the “Take Your Seat” initiative shows. In putting together your company’s sustainability agenda, strive to stay relevant, transparent and ethical, three crucial elements for reputational and, in turn, financial success. Communicating on sustainability is now a central aspect of reputation management, and it is down to corporate leaders to leverage this to their advantage.

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