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S3E5: Why and how your company should be talking about sustainability

Daisy talks to Imogen Hitchcock, owner of communications agency Beaumont. Imogen helps companies to tell better stories and has a particular expertise in employee advocacy programs and in this episode the conversation is all about why and how organisations should better articulate their work on sustainability.

This episode brings us to the end of our season focused on sustainability and reputation. It was actually the first interview recorded but we deliberately pushed it to the end because it is a really neat summary of why companies should care about sustainability at all, and how to get started on the journey towards changing corporate behaviour and communicating more effectively so you gain some credit for doing so.


You can find the all the data and analysis from the BRODIE Public First Sustainability Sentiment tracker HERE or listen to the whole episode here:


Or read the transcript in full here:


S3E5 - Why and how your company should be talking about sustainability


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think, and feel about your organization, then you are in the right place. I’m your host, reputation coach, Daisy Powell Chandler.


In this third season of Why Everybody Hates You, I am bringing you a series focused on the link between reputation and sustainability. Covering everything from human rights to climate change, lobbying to labelling. Public First recently partnered with responsible business consultancy, Brodie, to find out what the public thinks about a host of these issues. You can find a link to the full report in the podcast description. And I’ll be discussing some highlights of that data with a selection of experts and offering you guidance on what it all means for corporate reputation.


In today’s episode, I am speaking to Imogen Hitchcock, owner of communications agency, Beaumont. Imogen helps companies to tell better stories and has a particular expertise in employee advocacy programs. I asked her onto the podcast to chat about why and how organizations should better articulate their work on sustainability.


Hi Imogen, thank you so much for coming on. It’s great to have you.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: Hi Daisy. It’s a pleasure. I am so looking forward to chatting with you about this report.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: There is one particular part that I really want to pick your brains on and that is that when we’re talking about sustainability and corporate responsibility, for those of us who work in campaigns and comms, obviously the mind turns pretty swiftly to corporate advocacy and there are some really interesting results in here about the ways in which the public thinks about who is responsible for different types of sustainability issues with some really clear findings that, for the most part, they expect businesses to look after things like pay and employees and social issues, but that on the environment, they really expect the government to take the lead. Does that let businesses off the hook?


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: I don’t think so. I think it would be really easy for a company to look at this report and say “well our customers don’t think we should be doing anything about it so let’s concentrate on something we should be doing something about.” But I think that’s kind of a short-term approach. I think businesses need to step back and think about the bigger picture. So think about it first, your employees. If you want to be an employer of choice, you are going to have to do things, say things, and act in a way that your potential employees want to work in. You’ll find it very difficult to recruit and then retain the best and the brightest out there if you don’t proudly and loudly talk about what your business believes in, what it’s purpose is. I saw some very interesting research that came out of Arial actually recently, owned by Procter & Gamble. In their employee survey this year, 79% of their employees agreed that sustainability was a business priority in their organization.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: That really chimes with what we see in the research because there’s incredibly high levels of concern amongst the whole population about a whole host of sustainability issues and especially around climate change, we see real levels of pessimism and worry throughout the population.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: I think businesses having a voice and speaking out about some of these topics is also really important when it comes to building rapport and building reputation. If you get to a crisis point, you want to know that your consumers, your customers, are going to trust you to do the right thing, whether it’s expected or not. If you stay quiet on some of these issues, you are not adding to the savings, I guess, the saving bank of reputation and, therefore, it is going to be very hard for you as a business to come back from a big crisis or a big issue.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Completely agree on that and I think there is another point in here about the way legislators and regulators view companies who, from a reputation point of view, showing the people who make the laws, give you your license to operate in a particular market, that you are amongst the people showing best practice on an issue means that when they’re putting together new regulation, you’ll be amongst the people they consult rather than being the reason why they want new regulation in place because there are problems.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: I think the sad thing about a lot of businesses is they’re already doing all this great work , but they aren’t talking about it, and they are scared to talk about it. Maybe because they aren’t going as far as they want to, maybe because progress is been slower than they expected, but if you’re not out there and talking about what you’re doing, then no one is going to come to you, like you say, regulators are not going to come to you and ask for your opinion. I think it’s important to remember with all of these elements of SDGs, sustainability, whatever you want to call it, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be doing something and I don’t think there is an expectation of businesses to be doing everything perfectly, they’re not.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: No not at all. I think consumers get really suspicious actually. You know, consumers can smell BS. They really hate hypocrisy. And because they are really worried about all this stuff, if a company comes up and says “oh it’s really easy and we’re doing it”, I think, first of all, they might say “well why have you kept quiet about it for so long” and second of all, they are going to think “that sounds too good to be true” because it probably is.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: It is and it’s never an easy process. All of these issues that the report highlights are not quick fixes. They're not things you can change and do overnight, these are long-term change projects. This is about changing everything from the way you work to the way you hire to the way you make your products. And I don’t think our consumers are expecting us to be able to change the way we do business overnight. They know, they understand, it’s a longer process. But they do want to see milestones, they do want to see that something is happening. It is like any change programme internally.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: And I think that aligns so well with corporate advocacy, actually because much like all of us would love to be able to campaign and make change instantly, or at least over the next year, in truth, a lot of what we do is really about the next five, ten years or even further along, isn’t it?


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: It is. I think corporate affairs, government affairs, what is our role? What is actually our job when we go into the office every day, what is our job? Our job is to make sure that our company can still be doing business successfully in five to ten years time. It is about protecting that license to operate. It’s about creating brands that people connect with, yes, but it’s about making sure we are doing business in the right way, we are working with stakeholders in the right way, so that we can still do business in the future.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Yes, and perhaps contrasting that to some of the short-term is one of those words that gets bandied around but it does frustrate people. Yes, you can have success, you can make a whole load of money in the next couple of years, but if you really want to build faith in your brand, to build that connection that you’re talking about with consumers and with stakeholders because I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that if you’re a supermarket brand, MPs still shop in supermarkets, for example. So do the regulators. So quite often there is a crossover between who your customer is and who your stakeholders are, so if you’re not keeping the faith with those, if you’re not following through with your promises and fulfilling expectations, there can be a fatal undermining that you might not notice over your 18-month forecast but over ten years you might really, really regret.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: Absolutely, and don’t forget your employers, going back to them. They are also your consumers. And if they are telling you, internally, that they are expecting certain things out of your business and the way in which your business runs itself, then maybe that is something they are passing onto their friends, to their family, to their circle, so your employees are your biggest advocates. They are your in-built ambassadors. But if you are not using them to tell a story about your business that is positive and which is showcasing all the great things you're doing, that's a huge missed opportunity for them.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Absolutely and loads of free research. Loads of people coming back and telling you what they think of your product. That's brilliant.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: It is. I think there are so many small things that can be done on the advocacy side which don't have to cost too much money but which can have a huge impact. If you think about, I don't know, your breakfast table in the morning. Think about how many different packages you have on your breakfast table. You may have cereal packets, you may have jams or spreads, you got a loaf of bread, perhaps, milk. There is a whole wealth of space for you to be telling your story to your customers. And that is every day, without fail, that is the whole family in houses all around the country. Now are you using that space properly? Are you thinking about how you can use what you're already doing to start telling that story?


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: I think that's a really key point. The data in the report shows that about 40% of consumers, that's two-fifths of consumers, can't name a brand or a company that they think is responsible and sustainable. And quite often I come across clients who feel it's a crowded field already, like the customers are being maxed out like they can't remember any more sustainable brands and that's just not true. But the household names, the names that they remember, that they repeat back when we ask them who they think is sustainable, aren't necessarily the brands that sustainability experts would name. In fact, we've compared the two and they are quite different. Partly because the places where consumers learn about sustainability action are exactly what you've just called out. It's the packaging, it's the labels on the shelves, it's the websites, it's the emails that they've opted-in to receive from you, and a lot of these are free for you to do. Yes, there is an opportunity cost, there is other information you could put on there. But as we are able to show increasingly the commercial return of showing people you are a responsible and sustainable business, there is a real reason to be making space on your packaging for this kind of data, for this value-driven, purpose-driven, advertising.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: And again, sorry to harp on about employees the whole time, but I think they are a real missed opportunity. About 49% of people find a CEO a credible source of information. But that percentage rises up to 93% when it comes to the people that you trust, your friends, your family. Who do employees have if they don't have friends or family? Why are you not using them as that trusted voice that a person who's like me, to tell that story for you? You shouldn't be rolling out your CEO to talk about your sustainability efforts. You should be talking or getting people who are closer to the action to tell that story. Whether that's employees, whether that's your farmers, whether that's your suppliers, your salesforce, those are the guys who have the most power when it comes to trust and reputation.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: I completely agree. And I think, really, when we breakdown into this data, what we find is that, if you're thinking about a new corporate advocacy campaign, there are really two kinds of sustainability topics out there. There's one where the customers think you're responsible. So these are the areas like sourcing and looking after employees. Here, you really do have to bring your A-game. This has to be about best practice, this has to be able to show you're the best in-field, if you're going to be talking about those things. but what the data also shows is this whole range of topics where they think the government is responsible. And here you have a lot more latitude for, frankly, beating on the government, demanding change, asking for better regulation, showing the change you're making, the progress you're making, and telling a story about that. And really engaging those employee and consumer advocates to talk on your behalf and that is a great place to be building that rapport, building that values-based commitment from your consumers and your employees.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: We have to ask ourselves "why is it that consumers don't believe that we are responsible for things like animal welfare, for climate change, for sustainability? and is it because they don't trust organizations and businesses? Is it because they don't here from us enough in those areas?" And I kind of wanted to explore that a little bit because I think it's quite interesting.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: So we did get a whole load of data on this from the focus groups. So we didn't just do the massive poll in the U.S. and the U.K., we also did twelve focus groups where we really got behind what's in this data and asked people why they think this. And yes, a lot of what undermines these scores is that the public doesn't believe that companies will act on the environment unless they are forced to. This makes it very complicated for them because a lot of them also don't really believe or trust the government will act in these areas. So that's one reason why everyone looks so pessimistic on some of the big issues like climate change, in particular. But yes, there is a lot more trust for smaller, local businesses, but there is a worry that they may not have the capacity to make positive change. And then for the bigger, particularly global businesses, there is a lot of doubt about whether they really are prepared to potentially sacrifice some profit in order to make a positive difference.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: I think that goes back to what you were saying about sort of short-term. I think we have a really huge responsibility as communicators or as corporate affairs, government affairs, in trying to shift the attitudes of our leadership teams to think about building a business that is thriving rather than just surviving. We can, all of us can operate by doing nothing at all, but it is such a short-term approach. In order to be a sustainable business, and I mean sustainable as it will survive for the long-term, you need to be a leader, you need to prove that you're a leader. And companies really need to step up and stand for something. Otherwise, they are always going to be on the back foot, they are always going to be following, they're always going to be fighting off legislation they don't want. When if they actually step forward and start taking a stand and start showing people what they believe and what they stand for, then actually some of those issues might go away and might not raise their heads in the first place.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: I think it makes decision-making so much easier. Brutally, if you have a very clear idea of what it is you're aiming to do as a business, then so many business decisions fall out of that because you have a North Star, you don't have to look at reams and reams of data because you have a very clear idea of what you're trying to achieve to begin with. And I think that helps with that clarity of decision-making can make making business decisions faster and more effectively, which in big companies is a real problem. So purpose-driven business can really help with that. But I think there is a broader point here about if you don't stand for something, you're always going to be, at best, second in a whole bunch of things. And that really does make you struggle in differentiation.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: It does. I think purpose-driven organizations, we've heard, is a buzz-word almost now. Everyone is talking about wanting to be a purpose-driven organization and I think it goes a little bit deeper. You've got to have a clear purpose but you've also got to have a culture and values which backup that purpose. Otherwise, you're going to have a huge misalignment between what you say you do and what actually happens within your organization. And leaders have got to use that purpose, use those values, as you say, to make decisions. But not just make decisions about whether they're going to reduce water waste, but also what are their hiring practices like? What are their offices like? Do they give maternity and paternity leave? You know there are a wealth of decisions which make up what a company stands for, which, if they then talk about them, will help with that reputation with your consumers, with governments, with policymakers.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: I think that also brings us back to the point you mentioned earlier about employees. And what we both said about how you have to show progress. You don't necessarily have to be perfect, in fact, consumers would find that a bit suspect. But you do have to start somewhere and the best place to start is internally because it is very hard to go out and talk credibly on a topic if you haven't sorted out your own house. So on any of these topics, if there are companies listening to this thinking, "oh God, we want to be doing stuff on this but setting up a purpose or a big sweeping vision just feels overly ambitious right now," quite often what you need to do first is work out where you want to go. So I always advise companies to think about it as a venn diagram of where can you make an impact, what does your business model actually touch on? Because if you try to make an impact in areas that aren't core to your business, quite often you become a cropper. What's your team actually interested in making an impact on? And then, what do the people you care about, care about? So what does your target consumer, your main stakeholder, what do they care about? And if you can find an issue that sits between those three circles and then say "alright, where are we on this issue? Do we have a strong view? Should we have a strong view? And do we have a good story to tell about it?" And then the next step is, "do we have a good story to tell about it internally?" So if you can do those two steps, then you're on a really strong foundation to start talking about this stuff externally. But you need to know why you're talking about it and you need to know you have a clean house before you start preaching to other people.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: I think that point about knowing where you are is absolutely key. How can you set objectives and a vision if you don't know where you are to start with? It's like saying, "I want to go to London" but you don't know where you're starting from so, therefore, how do you know how you're going to get there? You need to know where you are. You need to audit your employees, you need to talk to your consumers, you need to talk to your key stakeholders, you need to understand how the business works, you need to have metrics and KPIs in place. Once you have that foundation, you can then make a decision about where you want to go. How feasible is it for us to go there? What are the steps we need to take for us to get there? And then you can start putting in place your strategy. But, unless you know where you're starting from, it's very difficult to figure out what that end point looks like.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Yes and much though the talk of metrics and talking to consumers and employees is music to my ears as a researcher, I think I would also hasten to add to that that sometimes metrics can be really simple. If you already do an employee survey, you could stick a question on that. If you do any kind of marketing research, you can put some questions on that for your consumers. You could look up publicly available data and see where the public is on a particular issue. This doesn't have to be very complicated. In fact, if at all possible, start with it not being very complicated, because you're much more likely to stick with it. But I completely agree you need to have a clear idea of where you're coming from.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: A lot of the time with our clients we do very simple poll surveys. So you're looking at three questions, it is done through the workplace, it's done through email, it is super simple, it's free, but you are getting the data you need in order to start shifting behaviour and start shifting the way in which people think. So I would just advocate, you don't have to, although Daisy would love it, you don't have to spend a fortune with an external agency. This is something you can do internally, at a very small scale, but it, as I said, unless you know where you're starting from, it's so difficult to show success and to show movement and so, therefore, just even basic metrics will help you as you start to get the advocacy going.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: Oh exactly. And you want to be able to, in two years, show your boss what a difference you've made. So if you don't benchmark at the beginning, you also can't show off as much at the end.


IMOGEN HITCHCOCK: And we all like showing off.


DAISY POWELL-CHANDLER: We do. Gold stars all around.


That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, Imogen Hitchcock from Beaumont. This episode brings us to the end of our season focused on sustainability and reputation. It was actually the first interview I recorded for this series, but I deliberately pushed it to the end because it is a really neat summary of why companies should care about sustainability at all and how to get started on the journey towards changing corporate behaviour and communicating more effectively so that you gain some credit for doing so.


I'd love to hear from you which lessons particularly stood out. And if you've enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll tell your colleagues, perhaps write us a review on your usual podcasting app. It really does help new listeners to find the show.


We will be taking a bit of a break now, so make sure you subscribe so you get notified when the next season lands. Thank you, as always, for listening to Why Everybody Hates You. And remember, you are not alone.