What you can learn about sustainable communications in the online SPR program

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The corporate social responsibility (CSR) and conscious capitalism movements have gained considerable traction this century, with major implications for the practice of public relations. In 2005, only 64% of the world’s 250 largest firms produced a report for shareholders about their CSR efforts; by 2015, the share had risen to 92%. At that time, Fortune 500 companies were collectively spending nearly $20 billion per year on CSR initiatives, according to a Business Backs Education report.

A PR professional responds to an inquiry.

The importance of corporate social responsibility

There is no uniform standard for what constitutes CSR, but it is more or less a form of self-regulation, whereby organizations commit themselves to projects and actions that improve their public image. In other words, it is a form of PR. Examples of CSR-related commitments might include:

  • Reducing the organization’s carbon footprint. In 2018, Apple announced that all of its offices, data centers, retail stores and co-location facilities were 100% powered by renewable energy sources.
  • Becoming active in local communities. Global retailer Ikea, via the Ikea Foundation, has donated millions to bring clean electricity to more than 1 million people across East Africa and India.
  • Ensuring the ethical sourcing and procurement of materials. Outdoors retailer Patagonia switched to the exclusive use of organic cotton throughout its supply chain in the 1990s to promote greater environmental friendliness as well as worker safety.

Since CSR is fundamentally about PR, it only works if the public knows what’s happening, which is where sustainable communication comes in. Sustainable communication refers to the strategy of sharing and discussing information about CSR campaigns. A required course within the curriculum of the online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) from the George Washington University (GW) focuses entirely on sustainable communication, so let’s take a deeper look at what this field entails.

Sustainability communication 101: Why it’s essential to effective CSR

At its core, sustainability communication must relay a message that resonates with the public and more specifically with its perceptions about the overall value of sustainable business. There is strong evidence that sustainability is important to how the public evaluates organizations.

According to a 2014 Nielsen survey, more than half of consumers (55%) would pay more for products and services from companies committed to environmental and social responsibility — a 10-point increase from 2011. A similar percentage of consumers check product packages for sustainability information, a practice reflected in McDonald’s move to ensure that all of its fish products could bear the Marine Sustainability Council’s ecolabel.

While it is clear that the public increasingly values sustainability, it is not enough for organizations to simply say they believe in sustainability or have a general commitment to positive change in the world. These broad statements can convey inauthentic sentiment or make a company seem like it is simply copying the practices of its competitors or industry. Instead of a check-box CSR, firms interested in sustainability should pursue it while telling a compelling story about how achieving it intersects with their operations.

A PR professional works on a CSR campaign.

For example, Nike maintains indices measuring the sustainability of the different materials required for making footwear, apparel and other equipment, based on their environmental impacts and supplier practices. The company sees its CSR efforts as not only important moves toward ecofriendliness, but also ways to reimagine its design and manufacturing processes and in turn build new engines of growth. Around 2012, it created a new $1 billion product line based on a shoe design that used a one-piece upper instead of a standard multi-part assembly. The Flyknit eliminated millions of pounds of waste from the Nike supply chain and contributed to increased revenue growth.

In addition to conveying underlying value and a specific viewpoint, sustainability communication must also engage the right audiences on their preferred channels. The traditional vehicle for talking about CSR is the annual sustainability report, which is designed for a limited audience and often isn’t carefully ready or fully understood. To broaden the reach of their sustainable communication efforts, many CSR adherents have turned to digital communications platforms (e.g., social media, email and company websites) and marketing tactics such as the use of memorable slogans or the inclusion of relevant seals of approval and endorsements.

Sustainability communication in the GW SPR program

All SPR candidates at GW complete a course in sustainability communications. Broadly, this course examines:

  • The global CSR movement and why corporations, trade associations and nonprofits alike are joining it.
  • The importance of building a firm’s reputation in an environment in which the public values responsibility and sustainability.
  • The specific challenges that can arise while crafting a sustainable communication strategy to support CSR.

SPR students will hear guest speakers from communications firms, nongovernmental organizations and major corporations discuss current issues in sustainability communications. They will also engage in discussions of case studies, journal articles and original research to further explore CSR issues. Finally, they will finish the course by completing a capstone project that involves the creation of a comprehensive CSR strategy.

As part of the online SPR master’s degree, the sustainability communication course combines rigorous content with a convenient learning format. Students can learn on their own time without having to worry about rigid meeting times or lengthy commutes to campus.

An online public relations degree provides excellent preparation for navigating the biggest challenges in sustainability communication today, including cutting through the complexity that often surrounds CSR issues. Everything from “fair trade”-labeled coffee to the consumption of single-use plastics has the potential to confuse the public, requiring careful messaging about the issue and how a given organization’s CSR strategy is treating it.

To learn more about the GW SPR track, visit the main program page, where you can answer a few quick questions to receive a free copy of our brochure. You can also visit the curriculum overview for a look at the other courses required for the SPR degree.

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