Why General Counsel could be critical to integrating your sustainability communications

Sustainability communicationsWhile working on sustainability communications project for a global pharmaceuticals company, I used to laugh how each time we proposed an innovative idea, they client would sigh and say: “I wonder what Barry would say about that”.


“Barry” was the person in the legal department whose job it was to vet content. He was seen as a barrier, stifling creativity in the name of compliance.


In our experience, this is a common problem and it extends to all the issues that are usually owned by the legal affairs function: corporate governance, (s)election of board members, compliance, remuneration, business conduct. Communication of these topics, especially online, usually is limited to presenting the required documentation using dry, impersonal technical language. Most companies come across as a carbon copy of all the others.


A new awareness in legal affairs


And yet, general counsels at some companies are starting to challenge this approach, understanding that rules, codes and procedures can only do so much on their own. How you present them has a big impact on behaviours and perceptions, both inside and outside the company. They realise that communications can influence their success in engaging management and employees, suppliers, regulators and business partners, making it an important part of a new skillset.


One factor that is driving this trend is increased investor attention to sustainability, an interest that often starts precisely with the “G” within the Environment-Social-Governance (ESG) triumvirate. The VW emissions scandal was another event that added a sense of urgency about the importance of governance for sustainable business.


This changing scenario takes governance communications from an oxymoron to an important area of collaboration between the legal affairs, investor relations, corporate communications and sustainability teams.


At one of our major Italian clients, for example, the legal affairs team has been handling a lot of the “sustainability” issues being raised by investors because they regard topics like risk management and remuneration. The team includes sustainability as a topic in its annual investor roadshow on governance issues.


We had a chance to work in this space in 2015, helping to transform the traditional corporate governance communications of Snam, an Italian company that is becoming one of the most important gas infrastructure utilities in Europe. Among the various strategic decisions we took, one was to combine traditional governance themes with business conduct topics such as anticorruption and third party relationships (topics that re highly material from a sustainability point of view).


Working in collaboration with legal services consultancy ELD International LLC, we ensured the corporate governance and remuneration reports are aligned with the new communications mindset, an opportunity to set out what makes Snam distinctive in this area.


How to integrate sustainability communications


Many companies approach us about their online sustainability communications saying it should be “integrated” into overall corporate communications. They aspire to a situation where the sustainability or corporate responsibility label is no longer required. Governance topics could be a good way to attract attention to the broader sustainability agenda.


So here’s some suggestions for kicking off that silo-breaking process in 2016:


  • Sit down – materiality analysis to hand – with the legal affairs, investor relations and communications teams
  • Understand which stakeholders find governance issues most important and prioritise them (both the stakeholders and the issues!)
  • “Localise” your top stakeholders to understand where and when is the best way to engage them
  • Assess what makes you stand out as a company in your approach to the top issues
  • Make sure your communications are “joined up” to make sure information is easy to find online
  • Don’t think ESG, think GES!

Read about our expertise in corporate responsibility and sustainability or get in touch with me directly: James Osborne – Partner and head of CSR and content strategy.

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