Mind your message

There’s an old adage in the communications world that goes something like this, ’Your message is not what you say, not what you write, it’s not even what they hear, it’s what they take away.’

Sounds obvious but how many communications plans start out with some key messages that look sensible on paper but by the time they’ve been communicated come to mean something completely different to the people they’re meant for.

The main point is the understanding and appreciation of your audience. Who is it you’re communicating to? How receptive will they be to the particular message? If the audience is your employees how do they like to be talked to? Is it simple language for the shop floor or jargon (hopefully not) for the management?

Writing for a particular audience can be a challenge. Putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what ticks their boxes really demands that you spend time at the outset considering the various target audiences for a communication.

Above all, don’t assume that because you’ve said it that you’ve communicated it.

Citizenship, corporate responsibility, sustainability, society: does it matter what you call your company’s sustainability efforts?

What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot. Just ask Reg Dwight or David Jones*. But does the same principle apply in the slightly less starry (but far more significant) world of corporate sustainability? In days gone by, it used to all be about corporate social responsibility (CSR), but almost no one seems to call it that anymore – it’s become the Reg Dwight of sustainability.

So what should you be calling your company’s sustainability efforts? A random poll of the group websites of a number of FTSE 100 companies proves that there is, as yet, no real consensus.





The 2014 FTSE 100
what we call ‘sustainability’ survey

Aviva – Corporate Responsibility
BAE Systems – Corporate Responsibility
Barclays – Citizenship
Barratt Developments – Sustainability
BP – Sustainability
BSkyB – Bigger Picture
BT – Better Future
Burberry – Corporate Responsibility
Co-op Group – Ethics and Sustainability
Glaxosmithkline – Responsibility
Legal and General – CSR
Marks and Spencer – Plan A
Morrisons – Corporate Responsibility
National Grid – Responsibility
Next – Corporate Responsibility
Persimmon Homes – Corporate Responsibility
RBS – Sustainability
Rolls Royce – Sustainability
Royal Mail – Responsibility
RSA – Corporate Responsibility
Sainsbury’s – Responsibility
Schroders – Corporate Responsibility
Tesco – Tesco and Society
Travis Perkins – Citizenship
Tui Travel – Sustainability
Vodafone – Sustainability
WPP – Sustainability

Corporate responsibility, the child of CSR, is still prominent while a simple ‘responsibility’ (the grandchild?) still features, but ‘sustainability’ appears to be the new kid on the block, with a sprinkling of others: citizenship, ethics and some others,  BSkyB’s Bigger Picture and Marks and Spencer’s Plan A, the stand out candidates.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter as long as whatever you call it resonates with who you’re communicating with. If your employees, clients, suppliers and partners understand and identify with corporate responsibility that’s all that matters. Why not ask them what they think? That said, I applaud the likes of BSKyB and Marks and Spencers for applying some original thought which perhaps suggests they’ve given sustainability more than just a passing thought?

Do customers not care?
What my ‘exhaustive’ survey of FTSE 100 businesses also revealed, was that while most businesses give home page links to their sustainability efforts (with one or two exceptions where sustainability is hidden a level down) on their group sites, when it comes to their consumer facing websites, there’s usually no sign.

Why not? Do they think their customers are not interested? Is it only shareholders and analysts looking at group sites that want to know about a business’s sustainability credentials? Perhaps that was the case, but I increasingly think that consumers are more savvy about the businesses they buy from and often make decisions based not just on price but on a range of other factors. Just look at the tax backlash against the likes of Starbucks and Amazon.

It seems to me
So, you can call sustainability whatever you like in your business provided it has relevance and meaning to your main audiences – don’t call it sustainability if that simply switches off the very people you’re trying to inspire for example. That said, whatever you call it, if its communicated poorly, you might just as well light a candle in the wind…

*Elton John and David Bowie .


We’re all natural born story tellers: so why not liven up your communications and tell one?

“When you have a story it’s absolutely natural to try and tell it.” At least that’s the view of novelist and playwright Michael Frayn speaking on the radio the other day.

From the moment we learn to speak, read and write we all love stories. And it’s a very effective communication method. It’s our brains apparently. Hear a compelling story and the grey matter is flooded with oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin – hormones all associated with rewards, pleasure and well-being.

once upon a timeWhy then, do we lose the art of good story telling in our work lives?

The trouble is, storytelling can seem like a risk. It can be easier to shelter behind the day to day jargon and ‘safe’ harbour walls of the corporate patois. But you know what? That stuff is neither fun to write or to read and nor is it always very effective in getting a message through.

Every story should have…
So what makes a good story? There is no scientific formula for writing a good story but like a good song you’ll want to hear it to the end; you’ll feel engaged with it; you might laugh, cry, or even think deeply about it; and, you’ll remember bits about it.

But there are elements any self respecting story needs to have:

  • A hero. And no, it can’t be your brand but it could be a customer, an employee, or even a thing!
  • Structure. Beginning. Middle. End. No one says though you need to tell it in that order though. Think Pulp Fiction.
  • There’ll be a big issue to resolve
  • There’ll be troubles on the way
  • There’ll be a resolution of some sort – perhaps a big reveal too
  • Or perhaps there’ll be a cliff hanger ‘till next time?

Next time you have a communications challenge, think up a quest, throw in a few ‘mission impossibles’, and let your hero loose!

And the winner is…

The problem with industry awards is they’re like Tribbles.

Tribbles? Readers of a certain generation might remember the furry little critters from Star Trek (we’re talking William Shatner vintage here) that looked attractive to have, but which reproduced at an enormous rate, gradually getting bigger and bigger, consuming all before them.

Every week seems to bring another letter or email exhorting you to enter a nomination for another “must win”  award. But, for the in-house comms people they offer a no-win situation. If you decide to enter, then the bulk of the work to put together a slick, compelling entry will fall upon your team. But, all too often, that can mean trying to to make a silk purse from… well, not very much at all. If you win…it’s mutual back-slapping and trebles (Tribbles even) all round for the winning team in the business, while your contribution will probably not be acknowledged. And, if you lose, well, it’s your fault for not getting the entry right.

So, here are my top three tips to make it through the industry award season:

  1. Prioritise the awards: decide which awards mean something to your business. Don’t be pressured into entering everything that’s going.
  2. Prioritise the categories: likewise, only enter those categories that your business has a chance of winning. A good litmus test is if you’re struggling to get enough information together or find a compelling story that usually means your entry will fall short.
  3. Story, story, story: the judges are only human. They like a good story better than anyone. So tell them one.

If all else fails, make sure you at least get a seat at your company table at the awards do and make like a Tribble; consume everything!


Bin your website section on CSR if you really want to be known as a socially responsible business

I can’t help feeling that when it comes to communicating corporate social responsibility(CSR), it’s still a bit of a tick box exercise for many businesses.


Piece on CSR in the website somewhere. Tick.
Piece on CSR in the annual report somewhere. Tick. Tick.
Some community related news on the intranet somewhere. Triple tick.

So big green ticks all round which is fine of course if, as a business, you’re not really committed to CSR and don’t consider it to be an integral part of what you do, and what you want to be known for.

This piece on integrated reporting in last month’s PR Week makes for an interesting read. Integrated reporting, the article says, ‘describes a movement in corporate reporting to intertwine the financial information in annual reports and the non-financial content usually found in separate CSR reports’.

If there is real commitment to CSR from the board level down, shouldn’t integrated reporting be obvious, and shouldn’t every piece of communication help illustrate what your business stands for when it comes to the environment, the community around you, and how your business functions in a sustainable way?

Get rid of the CSR section
So why have a separate CSR section on your website (or even a separate site altogether as I’ve seen with some) or intranet. Why not integrate elements of CSR throughout the site? And how about abandoning that hurried attempt in the annual report to pull together all your charitable endeavours and try to reflect your company’s CSR approach throughout the report. Think about every single touch point your business has with employees, clients, and other stakeholders and ask yourself whether it communicates your CSR values.

A luxury car maker doesn’t need to have a section on its website somewhere that says ‘luxury’, it simply reflects those values throughout its brand; in its product, how it behaves and how it communicates. Communicating CSR should be no different.