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3.4.2 Communication and Stakeholder Engagement

In light of global warming's threat to humanity (Frandsen and Johansen 2011) and their desire to mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities, businesses, policy makers, and the public will need to engage in increased collaboration (see Sect. 7.2). Stakeholder engagement refers to those practices that an organization takes to involve stakeholders in a positive manner in organizational activities (Greenwood 2007). Stakeholder engagement practices may involve public relations, customer service, supplier relations, management accounting, and human resource management. Public forums, NGO partnerships, community newsletters, and media relationships are important communication avenues. Communication can be used to gain consent, achieve control, enlist cooperation, enact accountability, increase participation, enhance trust, or serve as a mechanism of corporate governance. Although communication is a morally neutral practice, moral dimensions may emerge depending on power dynamics within the stakeholder–organization relationship and a situation's urgency.

Who communicates about sustainability when seeking to engage stakeholders? Although top management establishes the sustainability-related vision for their organization, an organization's sustainability personnel are tasked with disseminating the message. Ultimately, multiple employees will discuss sustainability initiatives with those stakeholders they interact with. But that chorus comes later after sustainability permeates its way into an organization's culture, processes, and tasks. Often, few staff are completely devoted to communicating about sustainability initiatives and their background in strategic communication is limited.

Communication Assistance in Portland, OR, and Boulder, CO Increasingly, city sustainability communicators are members of the Urban Sustainability Director's Network or the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. When it comes to messaging, they may need the assistance of skilled communicators. Susan Anderson, Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, described

how she hired someone from a marketing firm “and this is not something big cities usually do. The focus on understanding messaging, understanding communication is huge in this group. So we have spent a good bit of time finding out what works and what does not work in terms of changing behavior.” David Driskell, Boulder's Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability, works with marketing firms when communicating with citizens about sustainability:

It's totally ramped up our game as a local government. Obviously the private sector is doing much more sophisticated things than we do. But I think it's really changed our expectations on what we do to communicate with our public. We are using a lot more online tools and social media. It has been pretty exciting. I have just come to appreciate our communications team. We would not be here without them.

Public relations and communication professionals can make good corporate sustainability communicators skilled at facilitating stakeholder engagement (Signitzer and Prexl 2008), once they understand about sustainability. They know about differentiated target group analysis and segmentation, have experience building relationships and engaging in boundary spanning, have education and experience which allows them to better communicate complex issues in a differentiated way to various stakeholders, have expertise communicating with internal stakeholders, have a consensus-orientation reaction to conflicts, and have experience in making a public case. But before communication personnel can effectively discuss sustainability-related issues, they need to understand them (Bortree 2011). This will influence their attitude toward environmental issues and may improve their motivation to develop campaigns and other communication around environmental issues. Bortree gathered data from 320 members of the Public Relations Society of America. The public relations practitioners rated their own knowledge of environmental issues as above the midpoint. They said they knew the most about recycling, waste reduction, and energy efficiency and the least about offsetting energy usage and green packaging. They learned about environmental issues through reading and watching the news, visiting websites, and talking with colleagues. In response to an open-ended question, they identified turning to other information sources including blogs, social media sites, local nonprofit alliances, meetings, magazines, newsletters, and other sources of employee communication. Organizations hoping to engage stakeholders around sustainability initiatives should use the team approach and pair up sustainability and communication professionals. Or they could seek someone who is trained in both areas as universities increasingly develop courses in sustainability communication.

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