Paul Holmes is the Founder of The Holmes Report, a media about news, insights and intelligence from the global PR industry. In this interview he analyzes the importance of linking sustainability to communication strategy. The Holmes Report is media partner to Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018.
How would you describe The Holmes Report?
The Holmes Report provides news and analysis of the public relations business, focusing on the trends and issues creating new challenges and opportunities for PR professionals around the world.
You have just published your ranking `The Influence 100 2018′, which identify the 100 most influential communication and marketing directors from the world’s leading brands. How do you do this ranking? Do you consider communication with values as one of the selection criteria?
We look at a number of things, including the size and reputation of the organization, the involvement of individuals in professional leadership organizations and activities, and more. The way that values factors into the discussion is more as a disqualifier: we have rejected several individuals for inclusion because we felt they or—more often—their organizations lacked the integrity necessary to be influential in today’s world.
How important is sustainability in the communication strategies of companies?
It’s probably best to define our terms here. I look at sustainability primarily through the corporate lens, which means celebrating companies that are built for long-term success.
It seems to me that public relations, done properly, is all about building, nurturing and leveraging those relationships —with key stakeholder groups such as employees, customers, communities, shareholders— upon which sustainable success depends.
Looking at sustainability through the advocacy lens —where the focus is on sustaining the environment or the planet itself— sustainability is still critical for long-term success.
The big problem today is a short-term, quarterly focus, which means that all too often, companies neglect the things upon which long-term success is built in order to appease one powerful stakeholder group in the short-term. This manifests itself in corporate behavior, in obvious ways, and also therefore in the ways prioritize their communications.
From your point of view, do you think that Sustainability is becoming part of the storytelling of big companies because of regulatory requirements, because they are building a committed brand image, or because they really want to contribute to improving the world?
I think this varies to a certain extent from market to market. What I will say is that the regulatory framework alone does not account for many of the more progressive actions companies are taking in the current environment. I think companies are coming to understand that when employees and customers and shareholders have so many choices, many of them will choose to do business with socially responsible businesses and brands, and that’s a powerful motivator.
As to whether companies “really want to contribute to improving the world,” I think that’s a complicated and slightly abstract question. There are many entrepreneurs—and some corporate CEOs—who are motivated by the desire to do good. There are far more who are doing good because they realize is it good for the long-term success of their organization. I’m not sure it’s necessary, or even possible, to figure out motives. What matters is outcomes.
What role do communication agencies play in defining the trend towards purposeful communication of companies?
The best communications agencies are playing an increasingly central role, internally and externally.
To me, the internal half of the equation is the most interesting. It’s important for companies to change internally before telling the world how wonderful they are going to be, and that requires a real commitment to internal communication that drives real behavior change. Look at BP and its “beyond petroleum” promise. That should have been the culmination of a culture change that included an overhaul of compensation policy, of values, of behaviors.
But telling the story externally is equally important. And agencies here are doing a better job, although I do think the tendency of exaggerate, or to overstate the progress being made, is still a big issue. Still, telling the story of a company’s success, and being prepared to engage around the remaining challenges, is an important part of the agency’s role.
In your opinion, what is the influence of being a sustainable brand when the customer makes the decision to buy one product or another?
I think historically this has been overstated. We’ve all seen the surveys claiming that people are willing to pay more money for sustainable products in one category or another. Of course that’s what customers say they will do when they’re talking in the abstract to a researcher. But the number of who have both the knowledge and the willingness to act that way is smaller than we think.
Having said that, in a world where 2 or 3 percentage points of market share can mean billions of dollars, that’s nothing to sneeze at. And there are other issues: it’s easier for sustainable brands to attract and retain top talent; it’s easier to persuade communities to accept new factories or mines or stores. The friction of doing business in a permission-based world is reduced.
What advice would you give to journalists and communication and marketing managers when dealing with Sustainability related content?
For journalists in particular, approach everything with skepticism. Learn to ask the right questions when it comes to research and data in particular, because it’s so easy to cherry-pick data or present it in a way that is deceptive. Be aware that both sides do this and try to find as much objective, impartial comment as you can to verify any claim.
For communicators, I think the advice is similar. Expect that journalists will subject your claims to skeptical scrutiny and make sure you can defend the integrity of every claim you make before you send any material out. Don’t exaggerate current accomplishments or over-promise on future achievements. Good PR requires integrity and honesty and candor.
The Holmes Report is a media partner to Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018. Why do you think professionals from the communication sector should attend this event?
Stakeholders want to know more than ever about the companies with which they are doing business, they want to know how those companies impact the larger society and how they impact the world in which we live and many of them are prepared to take their business to companies they deem worthy.
Communicating with those stakeholders in an engaging and authentic way is critical, and communicators who understand the best practices—and that potential pitfalls—can add real value to their companies and clients.