US and the Sustainable Century

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Chad Tragakis
Senior Vice President and CSR Team Leader – Hill & Knowlton Washington

Strategic communication for business will be critical as President Obama ushers in a new green vision for America and the world, says Chad Tragakis, H&K Washington

“We can turn this crisis of global warming into a moment of opportunity for innovation, and job creation, and an incentive for businesses that will serve as a model for the world.”

From Barack Obama’s speech announcing his Presidential Bid in Springfield, Illinois, February 10, 2007

From his campaign kick-off more than two-and-a-half years ago, right up through his inauguration in January, the environment and environmental sustainability were central themes and important priorities for Barack Obama.  In office for only eight months, President Obama has moved quickly to reframe the environmental debate and reset expectations, which will have both an immediate and a long-term impact for businesses.

Making good on his stump speech commitments, President Obama, supported by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, is quickly turning campaign pledges into national policy by:

  • Reenergizing the push for a cap and trade system to limit greenhouse gases;
  • Instructing the Department of Transportation to require higher fuel economy standards;
  • Asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a new rule limiting mercury emissions from power plants;
  • Asking the EPA to review a Bush Administration order denying California and 12 other states the right to enact auto emissions standards stricter than the current federal level;
  • Reinstating a critical practice on the part of government agencies in support of the Endangered Species Act;
  • Reversing a last minute Bush Administration order allowing offshore drilling and drilling on some public lands;
  • Mandating that federal agencies cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2010 levels by 2020.

And his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly underscores the way Obama wants the world to view the U.S. when it comes to the environment.  It signals his desire for America to re-join the global dialogue on climate change, and resume a leadership position.

President Obama is tapping into a public policy sweet spot, connecting the dots between energy, the environment and economic recovery.  Even before the effects of the recession were truly felt, he espoused the economic benefits of an environmentally focused stimulus – clean tech, renewable energy, low carbon, resource efficiency – noting that it could create tens of thousands of high-skilled, well paying American jobs, spur new technologies and new industries, and foster a truly sustainable economy.  This momentum reflects the broad public interest in and support for environmental sustainability that helped get Obama elected.  And while the environment certainly was not the only issue, for many voters it was a central concern.

But by no means will this be a slam dunk.  Continued economic uncertainty and a heated national debate over health care are casting a pall over everything the new administration does.  Well entrenched sectors, from the coal lobby to agriculture, are making their voices heard, and this is leading to dissent even within President Obama’s own party.  Securing the 67 votes needed in the U.S. Senate to ratify whatever comes out of Copenhagen will be an uphill battle.  So, when and if a climate change deal is struck, it will likely look much different than the grand, elegant solutions that were once envisioned.

So what does all this mean for companies?

Despite uncertainty over timing and substance, whether you are an American firm, or a global enterprise doing business in or with the U.S., there’s a new sheriff in town.  And despite the policy and political challenges Obama faces, the citizens who voted for a green president are the same consumers who will vote for clean energy, for products with recycled content, for low energy consuming electronics, for reduced product packaging, and for companies with a genuine and demonstrated commitment not only to quality and value, but to sustainability.

It’s about embracing both environmental opportunity and environmental responsibility – and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  There are tax incentives and grants to take advantage of; a host of new business opportunities within the public and private sectors; new product and service offerings; partnership possibilities; bottom line energy and resource efficiency gains to be made; not to mention risks to be mitigated and managed (in the form of fines, lawsuits, boycotts, protests, disastrous media stories).  And the low carbon economy will bring about new winners, including solar, nuclear and natural gas providers, which will increasingly fuel the rest of the economy.

Each company will need to take a close look at its current strategy, and determine where, when and how it makes sense to introduce or expand environmental sustainability programs, partnerships, policies and processes into its operations.  But in terms of strategic communication and stakeholder outreach in support of business goals, there are some clear and deliberate actions that every company, regardless of size or sector, should be actively considering.

Get moving! This is a unique point in time, a confluence of public sentiment favoring all things green, a public policy environment that supports it and marketplace opportunities that are rewarding it.  The business benefits of a genuine commitment to environmental sustainability are now well established and early movers will have distinct advantages.  Corporate communications may be the quarterback, but every division of your company has a role to play, and every facet of your operation can take advantage.  This starts in the executive office (with board level oversight and encouragement), and includes sales, marketing and advertising, government relations, investor relations, operations, R&D, product groups, finance, legal and HR.  Integration is critical – get everybody on board, on target and on message.

But not too fast… Don’t rush to your new environmental messaging and outreach before fully understanding the opportunities, audiences, issues, risks and benefits.  Understand what your stakeholders expect.  You know that policy-makers and NGOs are interested, but your customers and employees care about this too.  Consumer expectations are increasingly high for all companies to do their part across the board, but they expect more from certain industries and sectors.  In spite of the global recession, consumers still seem to prefer environmentally responsible products, and many are willing to pay a premium for them, and they prefer companies whose operations are environmentally sensitive. They want this information available at multiple levels (including at the retail level), and they want companies to be able to prove what they say.

Under-promise and over-deliver. Consumers are increasingly savvy and increasingly skeptical where it concerns the environment.  Your commitment must be real, your product claims must be genuine, and your stories must be authentic.  Green products from a company or industry with a questionable social and environmental record don’t add up. Make sure the company’s left hand knows what the right hand is doing.  Be clear, be consistent, be as transparent as possible, and be ready to prove whatever you say.  Don’t take shortcuts, do not greenwash – you get one chance, so be sure to do it right

But don’t be afraid to tell your green story. If you have a good story to tell – a great product, a great process, a model partnership with an environmental NGO – talk about it, celebrate it.  If it’s genuine and if it has impact, it’s okay to brag a little.  Your stakeholders want to know, others can learn from your model, and no one else is going to tell your story better than you.  Be sure to find the right communications channels and vehicles that will best convey your good story to the audiences and stakeholders that matter most to you – media relations, online, product packaging, integrated with advertising, marketing collateral – whatever works best.

Regardless of what one thinks about politics or about President Obama’s new green vision, it’s clear that the sustainable century is here to stay.  The most successful companies, in America and around the world, will be those that rise to meet it.

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