6 ways to talk sustainability with any audience: takeaways from a discussion with Autodesk, Wells Fargo, and NRG

By Geoff Ledford
On Friday, September 24th thinkPARALLAX and Triple Pundit organized a meetup and discussion between leading sustainability influencers in the Bay Area inside of Autodesk’s San Francisco headquarters. The event built on thinkPARALLAX’s most recent thought leadership piece – Discerning taste: sustainability reporting for evolving audiences – which looks at how sustainability audiences have evolved in recent years and examines the ways that leading organizations have begun to adapt. The morning saw industry peers come together to discuss tactics for engaging audiences through sustainability messages.

The event featured a panel discussion featuring Ben Thompson (Sr. Manager, Sustainability at Autodesk), Stephanie Rico (Senior VP of Environmental Affairs at Wells Fargo), and Laurel Peacock (Senior Manager, Sustainability at NRG Energy). It was moderated by thinkPARALLAX’s Tyler Wagner and Triple Pundit’s Nick Aster. In line with the other events in this series, the audience participated extensively and supported the conversation with insights of their own. What follows are a few of the lessons we learned based on the discussion:

The diverse role of modern sustainability communicators:
The role of the modern sustainability department is becoming more varied, as the importance of sustainability continues to increase across all areas of a company’s operations. Although the companies and industries represented in the room during the panel were varied and diverse, all companies seemingly had this common denominator: the need for communications that reached across departmental boundaries to foster collaboration has never been more important.
“Our key power as sustainability practitioners is our ability to influence. We can be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ about emerging issues and risks that can affect our business long-term – and then bring those issues to the people that can actually mitigate them.”
— Laurel Peacock, NRG

The importance of identifying different audiences:
Much like the baristas that were on hand to serve personalized drinks to attendees, the conversation centered on the idea that sustainability practitioners are like “sustainability baristas” – who can identify the tastes and preferences of an audiences and serve them accordingly.
“We’re a lot like baristas – if we’re in an influencer or manager role, we have to deliver our message in a way that others will accept.”
— Ben Thompson, Autodesk
In order to effectively reach target audiences, Ben described an important lesson he learned from his marketing team earlier in his career. When asked who his sustainability message was supposed to reach, Ben answered “It’s for everyone.” He was informed that this wasn’t how communications worked and that blanket messaging is rarely effective.
“Learn how to segment your audience. And maybe even prioritize those audiences. It will make your communications more effective.”
–Ben Thompson, Autodesk
Talking to investors about sustainability:
As mentioned in Discerning taste: sustainability reporting for evolving audiences, investors have become increasingly interested in how sustainability and ESG data can help inform investment decisions. However, many attendees expressed that they didn’t know what investors wanted to hear when it came to sustainability. Laurel Peacock of NRG told a story about an executive from BlackRock who (rather bluntly) told her that most investors simply don’t bother with traditional sustainability communications. If sustainability messaging is intended to reach investors, they’ll have to get it somewhere other than a report. Several other questions followed about what kind of data best catered to this audience and (with limited resources and staff) how sustainability departments could best serve them.
One member of the audience with a background in investing offered insight that helped explain the mixed messages that investors sometimes give. Although most investors have ESG investment teams, they themselves are not entirely sure what to do with ESG data: “Investors are going back and weighing ESG data against portfolios historically and figuring out how to use ESG. They’re still grappling with it.” Until investors have finished figuring out the relationship between sustainability data and investment performance, their tastes will likely continue to shift.
The importance of a bigger sustainability story:
Ben of Autodesk had an interesting take on investors that stressed the importance of never losing sight of the larger sustainability story that a company is trying to tell. Autodesk was recently included in a major Socially Responsible Investor (SRI) index. In his opinion, this success shouldn’t be attributed to Autodesk filling out the correct surveys or checking the right boxes. As he sees it, Autodesk’s success with SRIs is a result of the company’s entire body of sustainability communications – which the details can support. If sustainability practitioners become too focused on the details of sustainability, they can lose sight of the bigger story that they are trying to tell. And this big story is what enables sustainability communications to be effective and engaging.
“Analyst surveys are important. And stakeholder feedback is good. But the rest of the body of comms, like the CEO message and other external messages, are what give that data legs and can really improve a company’s reputation.”
— Ben Thompson, Autodesk
How to reach employees (and customers too):
Stephanie Rico spoke to the strategy behind Wells Fargo’s sustainability communications. At Wells Fargo, her ultimate goal is to reach a wide range of end customers. However, her primary audience is internal – because, in the long term, the more Wells Fargo can embed elements of CSR thinking into all parts of the company, the more customers they will reach.
To reach both of these audiences, Wells Fargo created their stories site. According to Stephanie, most employees have tastes for stories – not data. So in order for a story to get on here, it has to have a human interest angle to it: “It’s the human interest stories that are compelling and that people will read.”
“If you want to be heard, you have to serve your message in a way that people understand it.”
— Stephanie Rico, Wells Fargo
How to get leadership on board:
The topic of CEO and leadership buy-in emerged several times over the course of the discussion, as few things can boost the role of sustainability at a company like a leadership team who fully understands and buys into its value. Some of the companies represented in the discussion came from places where executives understood and championed the value of sustainability. Others came from organizations who were not quite as far along on in their journey toward sustainability – and they wanted to know how to garner support for sustainability from leadership.
According to the panelists, the key to achieving this kind of buy-in depends on communicating with leadership in terms that each leader can understand. Autodesk’s leadership team are staunch advocates for sustainability, but it wasn’t always so. Ben Thompson recounted how much work it is to meet with leaders and argue for sustainability priorities, all in terms that each leader would understand. But the results have been worth the effort and are helping create sales: “Now, sales teams usually take the CEO letter (from the sustainability report) and a fact sheet to customers.”
Ben added a word of warning to the discussion: “But watch out. Because one day the lightbulb will go off and then you have to make sure they have the right data and talking points all lined out for them. Because they’ll just run off with it.”
Conclusion:
Hopefully, the insights from our discussion at Autodesk will help you and your organization in your sustainability journey. Because, whether you’re trying to reach customers, motivate employees, or turn an executive into a champion of sustainability, the effectiveness of a sustainability initiative always hinges on the ability of an organization to communicate it. We have to learn to understand our audiences, consider their values, and then speak to them in ways that resonate. As sustainability audiences grow and evolve, learning how to implement such tactics requires strategy, consideration, and practice.