This essay was a top three finalist in PRCA APAC's 2022 Future Leader competition.
It answered the question: "What role do in-house, and agency professionals play in sustainability communications? Does the burden of ensuring authenticity fall on the communications team?"
Authenticity. If there is a buzzword to rule them all, surely this is it. It’s a word that not only pervades communications plans and global boardrooms, but our everyday lives. Instagram influencers, with their perfectly posed and highly edited photos, espouse “authenticity”; consumers shell out thousands of dollars for “authentic” fashion items and self-help books pledge to teach us how to live authentic lives.
It would be fair to say that as a society, we are a little obsessed with authenticity. So much so that organisations too are jumping on the authenticity bandwagon, believing that effective communications must first embody this ideal. The term “authenticity” itself is difficult to define, however most definitions share three core principles:
- knowing your true nature and purpose.
- acting in alignment with this, despite the influences or opinions of others
- taking ownership of your actions.
Using these principles as a guide, authenticity appears a deeply philosophical and existential concept. After all, knowing your true nature and purpose is a challenge that philosophers have wrangled with for centuries. Applying the concept of authenticity to organisations is not only an anthropomorphic exercise, but one that increases the challenge tenfold. Organisations are not a single entity: they are a concept created and owned by multiple stakeholders, including leadership teams, staff, suppliers and consumers. Thus, the principles that underpin an organisation’s authenticity (purpose, action, and the gap between these) are open to interpretation by many different stakeholders.
Accusations of inauthenticity have recently spiked in relation to sustainability initiatives, coinciding with increased consumer interest in sustainability as a whole. The term “greenwashing” has been used as shorthand to describe the authenticity gap between an organisations purpose and actions when it comes to sustainability. For example, Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of COP26 recently attracted claims of “greenwashing” after activist coalition Break Free from Plastic ranked it as the top plastic polluter. However, Coca-Cola has publicly set a target of reducing carbon emissions by 25% in ten years and on its website lists its brand purpose as “Refresh the world. Make a difference”. If we return to our definition of authenticity, is Coca-Cola not acting in alignment with their true nature and purpose, despite the influences and opinions of others? Are they not taking ownership of their part in climate change by committing to reducing emissions?
This case study highlights the challenge that is developing a shared understanding of an organisation’s purpose and actions to ensure they appear “authentic”. The perception of any organisation’s brand and purpose is built up over many decades, through consistent communication. While objectively a simple formula, the reality of building and maintaining a consistent purpose over time is a monumental challenge. Organisations, and their stakeholders, must adapt communications to respond to environmental pressures, changing platforms and competitor movements. Herein lies a paradox: change too little and you will be left behind, change too much and you will be considered “inauthentic”. For example, H&M in 2019 launched a new line of “conscious” clothing, to meet growing customer demand for sustainable choices. This initiative is objectively in line with H&M’s stated purpose, “…fashion and quality at the best price…in a sustainable way”. However, given H&Ms track record of fast fashion, this appeal to purpose was labelled “inauthentic”, as it did not conform to stakeholders understanding of the brand.
We must also acknowledge that organisations are rarely on an even playing field when it comes to communicating “authentically”, often due to events outside their control. An analysis by Commetric revealed the top companies frequently mentioned alongside the term “greenwashing” by US media: Shell, BlackRock and BP. These organisations have all been subject to well-publicised reputational crises, with net promoter scores of -15, 11 and -3 respectively (Customer Guru, 2022). Thus, we must ask, are accusations of “inauthenticity” or “greenwashing” actually linked to reputation, regardless of purpose or actions? Accusations of “greenwashing” were levelled at BlackRock after CEO Larry Fink claimed that sustainability would be the firm’s “new standard for investing”. In the past year, BlackRock has demonstrated this commitment by divesting all shares from companies that make over 25% of their money from coal, and increased investments in “sustainable assets” by 41%. Compare this to Tesla, which holds an NPS score of 37, and garners vast praise for their sustainability credentials. This is despite that fact that Tesla continues to source some of the minerals they use in manufacturing from mines with large environmental impacts and poor labour conditions.
It’s clear that sustainability initiatives and sustainability communications are two vastly different things. In fact, sustainability communications are a tangle of stakeholder perceptions, reputation and purpose, all of which are built up over time and impact on the concept of “authenticity”. Untangling this web is a burden that should be borne by all stakeholders, both within and outside an organisation, not only by communicators. However, communicators do possess inherent skills to help lighten the burden and help stakeholders navigate this complicated issue. We must understand the nuances of authenticity and recognise the many factors that influence its perception. We must use our skill for language to develop a clear organisational purpose and promote this both internally and externally. We must build partnerships both within and outside the business, to help inform initiatives that will demonstrate this purpose. And we must recognise existing bias in the community, communicate it to those making sustainability decisions and counsel restraint.
In an industry that strives to provide clarity, the ambiguity of the word “authenticity” is ironic. The term has come to represent many different challenges that communicators must face, not only when communicating about sustainability, but many other organisational initiatives. To ensure sustainability initiatives continue to be implemented in future, we must do better as an industry to transition “authenticity” from a buzzword, to the start of a conversation. A conversation that must include notions of purpose, reputation and shared ownership.