Sustainable strategic communication

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At the crossrads of an uncertain future, companies seek to increase the sustainability of their products, processes, and operations. A University of Münster project by Prof Ulrike Roettger and Lennart Rettler suggests making corporate communications more sustainable and examines the role of communication professionals in promoting sustainable developtment.

The great transformation

Society is undergoing a Great Transformation towards sustainable development. Established corporate practices are being challenged by government regulations and stakeholder expectations. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Environmental Social Governance (ESG) standards have become critical benchmarks for businesses in every sector. Ensuring that sustainability is a key focus in corporate operations also includes sustainable corporate communications.

When defining sustainable strategic communication, it’s crucial to shift from focusing solely on the topics and content of corporate communications to emphasizing the sustainability of the processes, platforms, media, and products used. This change highlights the importance of not only communicating about sustainability but also communicating in a sustainable manner.

Aligning corporate communications towards sustainability goals

A heuristic for sustainable strategic communication was developed, combining the traditional communication evaluation framework—input, output, outcome, and outflow—with the dimensions of sustainability: ecological, economic, and social.

The heuristic is based on an evaluation of relevant literature on the topic of sustainability and strategic communication.
  • Input: Resources required Communication departments should consider managing and influencing economic, ecological, and social resources within their organization at the input level. Experts stressed ecological resource management and working conditions, as well as the importance of long-term economic resource planning for sustainable utilization.
  • Output: Sustainability in communicational products At the output level, considering the sustainability of communication products and production processes is crucial. All communication products, from emails to physical brochures, have an environmental impact, as noted by a Global Senior Manager Sustainability. Experts and professionals expressed concern about the lack of methods to measure the environmental impact of digital products, referred to as the “digital footprint.”
  • Outcome: Effects of communication The link between output and outcome levels is crucial. Adopting a “less is more” approach, as suggested by professionals, means reducing output while maintaining or enhancing outcome. This requires reevaluating how communication affects its audience and questioning the sustainability of communication metrics.
  • Outflow: Impact created The outflow level considers the value created by corporate communications for their surroundings, specifically how they contribute to sustainable development within organizations and society. Four factors can be considered important for communication departments and professionals aiming to drive sustainable development internally and establish a culture of sustainability: 1. Securing sustainability know-how, 2. Collaborating with other organizational units, 3. Securing top-level commitment, 4. Fulfilling a role as incubator (see below).

The role of communication professionals in leading internal sustainability transformation can be described as that of an incubator. Communication professionals can aid internal sustainable transformation by fulfilling three tasks: providing, connecting, and supporting.

An ongoing challenge

Adjusting corporate communications for sustainable transformation is a challenging task. Industry-wide standards are needed, and several communication agency associations are developing programs and guidelines to promote sustainable development.

The GPRA defines sustainability as something that has real, measurable positive impact. Accordingly, it focuses on three areas: 1) footprint – reducing resource use and negative carbon impact; 2) handprint – increasing positive impact through ecological and social progress; 3) brainprint – building and spreading relevant knowledge for sustainable development.

The GWA Forum Sustainability has published the “GWA Green Guide –Four Steps to a Sustainable Agency.” It is a practical guide on how agencies can drive the transformation towards sustainability out of conviction, to meet clients’ requirements, to create added value, and to ensure regulatory compliance. In addition to theory, the publication contains tools, checklists, and best practices.

About the study

The presented findings stem from the research project Sustainable Strategic Communication: How can communication management be done sustainably? The project started in summer 2023 and has been carried out by the department of strategic communication at the University of Münster at the department of strategic communication. Involved actors are: Prof. Ulrike Roettger, Lennart Rettler, Hannah Oetting, Anastasia Stelmach, Patrick M. Dietz.