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3.4.1 Adapting Messages to Stakeholders

The power relationships between stakeholders influence how messages are formed. I asked NRDC Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowitz to discuss the challenges he faces in sharing his messages regarding sustainability with outside groups like the sports industry. I would classify these relationships are opportunistic or perhaps mutually beneficial. Allen said:

When you deal with the private sector... one of the initial challenges is to get their attention based on the factual integrity of the issue. Then you have to acknowledge their agenda and their agenda is basically increasing the revenue of their operation. So we have to be very sensitive to cost configurations and other business aspects (e.g., supply chain reliability, product quality). There are many criteria that go into encouraging a business to shift to environmentally preferable products. Vending issues, existing sponsor and vendor relationships, a lot of complicated issues that effect the viability of any proposal to move an organization toward sustainability. We have to do that in the context of competitive business and what the generation needs and existing vendor relationships and try to encourage engagement and visibility and branding protections. There are a lot of challenges in advancing our issue.. .. So getting each organization to understand the risks that exist, to their public health, to their image, and doing it in a way that is not threatening and that is collegial. All of these things present challenges to communicating about environmental stewardship.

Prior to Cheney's (1991) seminal book on organizational rhetoric, most research into external corporate discourse failed to account for the complexity of communication whereby multiple official and unofficial speakers send multiple orchestrated and unorchestrated persuasive messages to multiple audiences, nor did it account for how institutional norms operating within an organizational field constrain a corporate actor's voice. Building on Cheney's work and on institutional theory, Allen and Caillouet (1994) investigated how one embattled reuse–recycle organization utilized different impression management strategies when speaking with different stakeholders. Today researchers investigating image building, corporate issue management, corporate advocacy, public relations, and crisis communication acknowledge the need to strategically adapt messages to various stakeholders. For example, Peloza et al. (2012, p. 86) reviewed research suggesting “employees are more likely than customers to require justification of sustainability initiatives, and be more positively influenced by a higher degree of fit between the initiative and the core business of the firm.”

One theory provides a useful framework for thinking about how to tailor messages which allow for coordinated action. Von Kutzschenbach and Bronn (2006) utilized the co-orientation model of communication in order to provide guidance for improving forest owners' communication with their end consumers. They write, “Sustainability communications require a systematic approach in which all the communication activities are directed toward achieving increased understanding between the organization and its relevant stakeholders” (p. 304). The co-orientation model began as an attempt to explain dyadic communication investigating an individual's perception on an issue and his or her perceptions of what significant others thought about the issue. It expanded into the organizational arena in the form of organizational co-orientation theory (see Taylor 2009). Three basic levels of communication can occur between parties: congruency, agreement, and accuracy. Communicators can be in true consensus (i.e., both agree and know how each other feels), dissensus (i.e., both disagree but know how each other feels), false conflict (i.e., they think they disagree but they do not), or false consensus (i.e., they think they agree but they do not). Effective communication with stakeholders requires developing internal and external strategies to improve short-term accuracy and to increase long-term levels of agreement. Transparency, information exchange, and credibility are important. Creating shared definitions and increased accuracy improves the relationship and can influence party willingness to engage in dialogue. Feedback can be used to integrate additional relevant stakeholders into the discussion. Communicating, negotiating and contracting, relationship management, and motivating stakeholders are all important strategies. This theory is useful in suggesting the need to be systematic in how organizations think about their stakeholder-directed communication.

Lessons from the Field: South Dakota and Colorado Those seeking to communicate about sustainability must tailor their messages to address different understandings and should be prepared to explain the various dimensions of the concept so that those with different understandings can relate to it (Linnenluecke et al. 2009). Although he generally stresses efficiencies and economics when talking with stakeholders, Mike Mueller, Sustainability Coordinator for the South Dakota Bureau of Administration, is aware of the need to adapt his message based on the audience. He told me:

Our current administration is very focused on efficiencies, so whenever we can make strides, it is always warmly received when we can say we are saving energy, we are saving money.. .. It is, of course, important to understand the audience you are trying to communicate with. I think that the effort of sustainability is broad enough that you can tailor a message no matter how resistant the person may be to certain parts of sustainability. If you know that they are interested in a certain result, then that's the way to message. I have also found that data specific always reaches a broader audience. It is easy to look at someone and say, 'The reason that we don't have irrigation of that grass anymore, this is prairie grass, is because we are using six hundred thousand gallons less water on that lawn.' It looks just as green, although it is green for a more compressed time period. When you start talking numbers to people, they get it, tell them how much we spent on irrigation on this campus to keep it green, it is an attention grabber.

Message modification also emerged in another of my interviews. Founded in 1876, the University of Colorado, Boulder, was the first US university to rank gold through the AASHE STARS program, the first to establish a recycling program, and the home of a student-powered Environmental Center since 1970. It has been rated as the greenest campus in the USA. Moe Tabrizi, former Assistant Director of Engineering and Campus Sustainability Director at the University of Colorado, Boulder, generally sought to send out a broad but consistent message when he spoke. He told me:

We create a messaging that appeals to the broad range of students, staff and faculty. Part of the message has to do with the impact on the environment and global warming, part has to do with the financial impact (i.e., energy, resource and paper waste), [part involves meeting campus-wide goals], and part has to do with operational efficiency. When you throw a big net, it is easy to bring a lot of people under the tent. So I think that has been our messaging strategy. And it's fairly effective. It has appeal to the staff, appeal to the students, and appeal to the faculty.

Moe talked about messaging when preparing to design a LEED-certified building saying:

The argument is the cost of ownership over time is less. It is a better, healthier building to be in. It is a more productive place to work in terms of lighting and views, having a cleaner environment in terms of indoor air quality. Also, it is in support of campus carbon neutrality and our long term goal of energy conservation. So when you put that kind of discussion in front of people, generally people are very supportive. But if you just present that from a narrow perspective you may not have as much support in the broad audience.

When talking to design and construction folks, Moe said his usual example involves the 500,000-square-feet campus Engineering Center built in the mid-1960s for about $15 million:

So I ask the folks, 'What if we had spent one percent or two percent of the construction costs at that time and improved the building's efficiency—energy, water, insulation? What do you think that positive impact would be?' People can't answer that question. Then I tell them that we have owned that building for 50 years and it is going to continue to be a part of the campus for 10, 15, 20 years, and the cost of utilities for that building is roughly $2 million a year. That gets people's attention.. .. You have to have a meaningful example, a meaningful conversation based on your audience, based on who is who in the zoo.

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