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Ocean Consulting delivered a keynote speech at the ORBIT Conference by PUB Magazine on 25 October 2018 in Brussels, in relation to Sustainable Development Goals and how they represent a strategic communication pillar for public and private organisations.

Who of us is not scared? Who is not afraid of dying, falling sick, suffering from hunger, being assaulted or harrassed, falling in poverty, being confronted to civil war, having no school for kids? Who can say « this will never happen to me, my children or my grandchildren »? Communication is all about empathy. Clients, citizens, human beings have one main need: security.

In 2015, after almost 50 years of discussions about the future of the planet, public and private actors, under the United Nations umbrella, have set up what we all call SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals. With one main objective: meet the current needs without compromising our future. For the first time in the history, there is a common guidance platform for all economic actors across the world. It means that anyone can nowadays build a development strategy with sustainability as a basis. 17 pillars and 169 targets need to be reached by 2030, to reduce poverty, ensure good-health and well-being, increase quality of education, gender equality, clean water and energy, responsible production, etc. etc.

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Obviously those objectives are of a common interest. Any of those objectives can be applied for each private company or public authority across the world. This is why some countries and also companies have already decided to draw their future in direct correlation with those 169 targets. In the case of private companies, those exemplary actors have decided to target economic development as well as adopt a clear positioning for each of those Sustainable Development Goals. This is the example of the real estate company Befimmo, which decided, instead of having two different annual reports (one for the activity, and one for sustainability), to actually gather everything into only one annual report. Any decision is made with sustainability as a core objective.

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How you behave and what you’re doing is the basis of your communication approach. In 2018, media, influencers, public opinion leaders watch, fact-check. It’s all about saying what you’re doing and doing what you’re saying. If not, you’re immediately identified as a green washer.

If a TV journalist is interviewing you as an environmentalist, and immediately after asking you about your other position as industry lobbyist, you’re kicked out of the game. If you’re hiding, sooner or later someone will see and share it with the rest of the community.

How you behave needs to be clear in your communication, and your reputation. Don’t ask what people buy, ask yourself why they buy. 

Your values are an increasing part of your proposal. Your clients buy beautiful products or services. And what is the definition of beautiful? Anybody? Beautiful means 3 things: brave, smart, kind. Brave, your organisation is doing its maximum to support their staff and clients.  Smart, your organisation is aware of societal issues, anticipates future needs and expectations. Kind, your organisation feels empathy for others. If your behaviour does not correspond to your values, and if the media attention is suddenly focused on it, the sanction can be immediate.

As a decision-maker, as a prominent director in your organisation, you know your strengths and weaknesses. You know where your organisation wants to go. You know how and you know what you can bring. It’s therefore up to you to know exactly which positioning you need to adopt in your brand strategy. Up to you to know at what moment you need to communicate on your strengths, with which arguments. And this for each of those 17 sustainable development components. You know exactly what topics you need to keep careful with, to avoid green washing. Always taking into account topics of interest from media, consumers, influencers and politicians.

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As a CEO, you represent your organisation in the public opinion. When Solvay is appointing a French-Moroccan lady as a global CEO, the group is not only appointing an outstanding chemicals professional, with no doubts on her skills and charism. The company is appointing a woman, whose one of the nationalities is from North Africa. The group is communicating on a global strategy of openness. What about the HR approach in the rest of the group? Will it be so unconventional?

When you’re buying an airplane ticket, do you think about the well-being of the company staff? Did you think about it 10 years ago? When you buy milk, do you think about the well-being of farmers in your country? Do you think that the well-being of the staff has influence on the service that you’re buying from that company?

People need security. In their movements, in their breathing, in their consumption, in their medical care. Before thinking about a public communication campaign (for example on mobility), just think about how your direct environment goes, even inside your city. Think about elections in Belgium few days ago. Listen to this movement in the public opinion, measure it, analyse it, take distance from it, and finally, speak. Think about the conversation and the opinion of your public before adopting a positioning. Be an actor in this conversation. Speak to stakeholders, and keep beautiful. Beautiful? Brave, smart, kind.

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People don’t buy your products. People buy your values. People buy your behaviour. People buy your mindset. Your mindset is your service. Taking the example of an industry using plastics at all fronts. What if one of your activities or part of your supply chain damages environment and human nature? How many consumers will be influenced? In 2018? In 2025? In 2030? Again, the answer to sustainable development issues is now clear and homogeneous for all actors. Use it.

Be coherent. Your reputation needs a strict balance between your acts and your words. Few days ago I was on the speedway from Antwerp to Brussels and I saw the Bayer Chemicals building. Do you remember the Bayer baseline? Anybody? "Science for a better life” Question: few years after the purchase of Monsanto, can Bayer still adopt this communication? Be coherent.

Say what you do, do what you say. Know your strengths, work on your weaknesses. And stay away from bullshitty greenwashing, please. We have an outstanding opportunity for drafting stories together with SDGs. Keep up the hard work.

Let us take the examples of 3 fast food chains, in the context of single-use plastics and plastics recycling. 

  1. KfC is basically communicating « we have nothing to say about it. » « Circulez, y a rien à voir. »

  2. Burger King is adopting another position, i.e. « we have targets, we haven’t reached them, we’re working on it via different performance indicators, and we’re aware not to be exemplary. »

  3. ExKi has a clear position to reduce and recycle plastics. And communicating this at all fronts. So when a staff member is saying to a hidden camera journalist that this is not that simple in the everyday work, the consequence on their image is potentially immediate. 

Be concrete, coherent, transparent, and… ? Beautiful