© Tobias Tanzyna

The sustainability of corporate communications

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How can communicators manage to become more sustainable themselves without losing communicative output? During our Science Update 2023 session at Siemens HealthineersUlrike Röttger and Thomas Voigt explained the importance of sustainable corporate communications.

Due to the increasing social importance and the need for companies to position themselves, the sustainability of corporate communications must also be called into question. Chief Communication Officers in particular need to familiarize themselves with the various perspectives on sustainability in corporate communication in order to legitimize themselves in society in the long term and ensure the next generation of employees.

Sustainability communication

An established corporate division

Current studies show that sustainability is becoming increasingly important in Europe and especially in Germany. Companies not only have to position themselves in relation to their consumers, but also in relation to their potential employees and take a stance on the issue of sustainability. Accordingly, the importance of sustainability and CSR communication has grown rapidly and is considered an established area within the company.

New perspectives on the sustainability of corporate communications

Sustainable communication is understood to mean sustainability as a guiding principle of action and always relates to the issue of the economically, ecologically and socially responsible use of resources

Ulrike Röttger distinguishes between two other perspectives on sustainability communication in addition to classic sustainability communication. On the one hand, communication as a guiding principle can also be a decisive lever to accompany social change. On the other hand it also question one’s own sustainability.

Ulrike Röttger

» In the course of the great transformation, corporate communications must focus on what they themselves do for sustainability and not just communicate about it. «

Professor Ulrike Roettger, University of Münster

How do companies appropriately communicate about sustainability?

Firstly, there is the aspect of communication about sustainability, which aligns with the traditional models of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability communication. The involves disseminating information and messages pertaining to to sustainable practices.

What role does corporate communication play in sustainable transformation?

Secondly, there is communication for sustainability, where the communicative process becomes a pivotal instrument in facilitating and bolstering social change. In this context, communication serves as a strategic lever, actively contributing to the advancement of sustainable initiatives and societal transformation.

How sustainable is corporate communication itself?

Lastly, there is the consideration of communication of sustainability, delving into the inherent sustainability of the communication methods themselves. This raises questions about the eco-friendliness, ethical aspects, and overall sustainability of the communication processes employed. It prompts an exploration into the environmental and ethical footprint left by the very means through whicht messages are conveyed.

Study on sustainable corporate communication explores new territory

From a scientific point of view, the last two perspectives are rather uncharted territory. They view sustainability as a moral compass and guiding principle for corporate communication.

A study by the University of Münster led by Ulrike Röttger and Lennart Rettler was the first to examine these facets of sustainable strategic communication. They also looked on what options experts see for the requirements and challenges of strategic communication. To this end, they conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with 14 experts from the field of strategic communication and sustainability. The results were systematized using the established evaluation model according to input, output, outcome and outflow. The output level in particular reveals a major tension in the topic, as it considers the sustainability of communication itself against the background of the objectives of strategic communication. However, this conflict of objectives is relevant for CCOs in order to legitimize themselves in society, remain competitive and secure young talent.

  • Input: Which resources are considered and how are they used?
  • Output: What is the sustainability of the communication products themselves?
  • Outcome: What is the sustainability of the relationship with stakeholders and how much attention should communication receive?
  • Outflow: What task does corporate communications have to improve sustainability in corporate communications and to what extent does it itself contribute to change in society with regard to sustainability?

A statement from practical experience of Thomas Voigt (Otto Group) 

Thomas Voigt serves as the Group Vice President of Corporate Communications and Political Affairs at Otto Group. He oversees both internal and external communication for the trading and services group, which comprises approximately 30 corporate entities. Since 1986, Otto Group has been committed to socially responsible business practices aligned with its corporate goals and strategy, reflecting a long-standing tradition.

Sustainability communication becomes a tightrope walk for companies 

Thomas Voigt observes that the increasing regulations in the field of sustainability communication lead to a stronger emphasis on business and performance communication. Companies must navigate the balancing act between detailed and factual discussions within decision-making circles and the highly emotional public discourse.

Thomas Voigt

» The growing regulatory environment constrains sustainability communication within a framework based on facts and objectivity. «

Thomas Voigt, Otto Group

Holding and communicating values

Companies bear the responsibility to engage in the discourse on sustainable business practices through clear and authentic communication. Thereby they raise awareness for sustainable business practices. Communication plays a key role in the successful transformation of companies towards sustainable business. Accordingly, entrepreneur Dr. Michael Otto as shareholder of the Otto Group also utilizes the attention and reach on the occasion of his 80th birthday to draw attention to the challenges in the sustainability and digital sectors. He positions himself in favor of a sustainable development of the economy in Germany and Europe. Thomas Voigt sees communicators faced with a multitude of challenges and, at the same time, a great responsibility to actively support societal transformation.