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Sustainability communications: bad news can be good news 


A central tenet of communications is to avoid presenting any news with a negative angle. While this applies to the majority of communications, it can actually be counterproductive when talking about sustainability. Communicating what we did not achieve can be a very smart strategy when it comes to sustainability. Let me explain why. 

Sustainability communications should focus on the achievements, plans and actual delivery against ESG promises and goals. However, we all know not all the goals can be achieved in the timeframes stakeholders expect. Also, we can’t control everything: business disruption and external events affect implementation of even the best thought-through strategies.  

And that combination causes a dilemma. Do we spin the messages to make them as positive and enthusiastic as possible, or do we go for transparency, reporting on what the organisation did not achieve? 

There is a moral consideration about spinning the results or avoiding transparency. There is also a pragmatic consideration.  

If we meet all the targets, some stakeholders might think we weren’t ambitious enough. It also leaves little space for aspirational communications, stretch goals and all the management tools used to enhance progress.  

In addition, communicating “bad results” brings credibility and allows us to build stronger relationships with external and internal stakeholders. This is the importance of transparency. If you try to hide the negatives, either by not including them in the commentary, or even by removing the offending data from the tables, you can almost guarantee someone will find the holes.  

In addition, communicating “bad results” brings credibility and allows us to build stronger relationships with external and internal stakeholders.

Never forget that Gen Z are digital natives. And, when their turn comes, Gen Alpha are digital ninjas. You can rely on them not missing a trick. And the resulting disclosures will be much, much worse than you talking about the negatives from the start. 

Obviously, we don’t advocate self-flagellation. However, organisations that are strategic about their ESG approaches can gain additional credibility by presenting what they did not manage to achieve. It allows us to explain why and what we’re doing to improve. And since trust is critical for sustainability stakeholders, it creates an enabling environment to build on for future progress. 

How to communicate sustainability failures: 
  1. Explain exactly what has happened: which targets have been missed 
  1. Provide the reasoning: what were the strategic and operational factors that led to this result. 
  1. Create a clear balance in messaging by showing what the organisation did manage to achieve. 
  1. Define the impact and consider actions taken to remediate the missed targets. 
  1. Showcase how this result will be considered while planning execution of the sustainability strategy. 
  1. Be granular about the steps taken to avoid repeating the issue(s). 
Lukasz Bochenek

Managing Director / Deputy CEO, based in Geneva

Lukasz is Managing Director for Switzerland, Belgium and UK offices as well as deputy CEO for Leidar. He oversees key international client projects and relationships. In addition, he manages external partnerships and memberships of Leidar. 

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