“Trickery and treachery are the practices of fools that have not wits
enough to be honest.”
- Benjamin Franklin
Despite claims of accountability, corporate communication is almost always less than transparent. Like a compass needle drawn north, companies inexorably gravitate towards supporting the corporate message. They might concede a few failures to enhance credibility; the rest get concealed.
Cynics would say it would be naive to expect any brand-conscious company to behave differently. But leadership in sustainability is about seeing what’s over the next wave and acting now to get ahead. For instance, new media have changed the game. Those that spotted the wave of demand for transparency face not only risks but opportunities. But most are in danger of being swamped.
Openness about uncertainty
Corporate communications are often led by brand positioning. Building a brand that incorporates sustainability is not straightforward. Some companies fall into the trap of making ‘greenwash’ commitments that simply cannot be delivered in the real world. And most brand owners find it hard to accept that being honest about management failings or challenges where the solution is unclear can in fact help build brand credibility.
So what is the alternative? Transparent communication doesn’t have to be about donning a corporate hair shirt. But it does require open explanation of the uncertainties faced in implementing strategies that could be derailed by factors such as climate change, social upheaval and the vagaries of government policy. Doing this can help prepare stakeholders for unplanned results. And it is by facing up to these externalities that companies can develop more sustainable products and services.
How do companies go about communicating uncertainty about sustainability? How can they strike a balance between celebrating achievement and recognising poor performance, and between making confident plans and acknowledging unmet stakeholder concerns? These are the challenges we face as the wave of demand for corporate transparency looms large.