“Long may you run.
Although these changes have come.”
– Neil Young
Sustainable communications -- for the long haul

Sustainable public relations-- for the long haul

This essay briefly summarizes an idea of mine about how public relations should be practiced.

Sustainable Development: A Foundation on Which to Build

First proposed in the early 1970s, the term “sustainable development” (sometimes called “sustainable industry” and/or “sustainable economy”) became popular with the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in 1992. A Google search for the term “sustainable development” yields more than 23 million hits and there are innumerable local, state, national and international organizations – both public and private – that promote the concept (e.g., the U.N. Division for Sustainable Development, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development, SustainableBusiness.com, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, etc.).

Many organizations (such as the Novo Group) now adhere to a “Triple-Bottom Line” philosophy that balances financial, social, environmental and ethical concerns. Sustainable development integrates corporate responsibility into business to secure long-term sustainable growth. We do this by balancing financial, social, environmental and ethical concerns. Some companies publish audited environmental and social responsibility reports alongside their annual financial reports. And a growing number of investment groups and industry analysts praise “sustainable development companies” for their success at achieving financial targets while mitigating the risks associated with questionable environmental or social practices. Companies regularly highlighted as models include: Novozymes, Toyota, Unilver, 3M, Proctor & Gamble, Intel, DSM and Volkswagen.

The financial world has taken note, as well. Launched in 1999, the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes are the first global indexes tracking the financial performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide. Based on the cooperation of Dow Jones Indexes, STOXX Limited and SAM, they provide asset managers with reliable and objective benchmarks to manage sustainability portfolios.

While there are a number of definitions, some of the more popular ones are:

  • Development that meets the needs and aspirations of the current generation without compromising the ability to meet those of future generations.
  • Development that ensures that the use of resources and the environment today does not restrict their use by future generations.
  • Development that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability to meet future needs.
  • Development that can be maintained in the long term, that is, without consuming or destroying finite resources.
  • A real increase in well-being and standard of life for the average person that can be maintained over the long-term without degrading the environment or compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy,

“Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that also benefit the local environment and quality of life. It has become an important guide to many communities that have discovered that traditional approaches to planning and development are creating, rather than solving, societal and environmental problems. . . . Sustainable development provides a framework under which communities can use resources efficiently, create efficient infrastructures, protect and enhance quality of life, and create new businesses to strengthen their economies. It can help us create healthy communities that can sustain our generation, as well as those that follow ours.”

Sustainable Public Relations: A Proposed Model and Approach

How might one define “sustainable public relations”? According to Long and Hazelton’s model of public relations, organizations use communication to adapt to, alter or maintain their environments to achieve organizational goals. Sustainable public relations then is about helping organizations decide how best to use communication strategies and tactics to help them not only survive, but to thrive in the midst of change. Sustainable public relations draws upon a cross-section of disciplines – research, psychology, public relations, marketing, advertising, design, organizational theory, leadership – to build a communications program that can be sustained over time and contribute to improving organizational effectiveness. By managing effectively an organization’s reputation and resources (economic, human, symbolic, etc.) and relationships with stakeholders, a sustainable public relations program helps ensure the organization’s continued health, growth and success.

For an organization’s communications program to be sustainable, it must be founded upon principles and practices that contribute to nurturing the organization’s long-term survival within the broader community – e.g., an adherence to the highest ethical standards, a sensitivity to different perspectives and global cultures, a grounding in research and critical analysis, an understanding and application of communications theory and human psychology, and a recognition of the organization’s responsibility to its stakeholders and the broader community at-large.

As with sustainable development, sustainable public relations requires measurement. A baseline is established and progress against clearly defined objectives is carefully gauged over time.

Sustainable public relations practices comprise the full range of communications disciplines:

  • Investor relations
  • Marketing
  • Branding
  • Research
  • Advertising
  • Design
  • Interactive communications
  • Leadership
  • Employee communications
  • Media relations
  • Community relations
  • Crisis communications
  • Issues management
  • Organizational theory
  • Human resources
  • Fundraising/development

In short, sustainable public relations means:

  • Sustaining growth . . .
  • Sustaining reputation . . .
  • Sustaining investment . . .
  • Sustaining confidence . . .
  • Sustaining a vision . . .
  • Sustaining momentum . . .
  • Sustaining profitability . . .
  • Sustaining quality . . .
  • Sustaining satisfaction . . .
  • Sustaining trust . . .

. . . for the long-term.