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Shaping the Future of Responsible Policy: When Sustainability Meets Public Affairs

The job of Public Affairs professionals is to ensure that an organization’s legitimate interests are considered by policymakers. When there is a mismatch between an organization's stance and the prevailing public sentiment, the ability of that organization to influence policy decreases. Thus, first and foremost Public Affairs teams focus on monitoring, understanding and ideally anticipating societal trends with the aim of preventing scandals and negative publicity and to build a harmonious interaction between the organization and the external environment.

Without a doubt, Sustainability has materialized as the most significant societal trend in recent years. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023, 82% of the general population expects business leaders to act on climate change and 80% on discrimination, two topics respectively falling under the Environmental and Social chapter of the ‘ESG’ (Environmental, Social, Governance) umbrella.

The Sustainability trend has its roots in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concept but has evolved into a comprehensive roadmap for all profit and non-profit organizations transcending environmental concerns to encompass social, economic and governance dimensions as well. Unlike CSR, Sustainability is no longer just a niche concern but has risen to a fundamental aspect of strategic decision-making in the public and private domain. Climate change, Biodiversity loss, Water scarcity, Gender equality, Board transparency, and Impact on local communities are just some examples of topics that organizations are increasingly expected to act on. Companies failing to do so – or doing it superficially – are exposed to regulatory, investment, customer and employee risks. Thus, addressing these issues aligns with good management and risk prevention.

Not only. The integration of sustainable practices enhances corporate reputation and help build trust among stakeholders. A company’s stance on Sustainability can significantly impact its public image, and by extension, influence its commercial success. In this context, the job of Public Affairs is to help optimize ways in which the organization communicates its sustainable practices to different audiences, be them investors, regulators, or the public opinion, and to avoid that societal expectations are ‘disappointed’ by the organization. 

For anyone who practices lobbying and advocacy, Sustainability is an unbeatable platform to build relationships well beyond the traditional range of stakeholders that an organization may reach out to on the basis of its core activity. Take for instance Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Investors, consumers, employees, governments and the general public expect economic players to demonstrate their efforts in this area. By doing so, organizations have the opportunity to be visible to a vast range of players active in this domain, as well as to the parts of government and parliament that are sensitive to DE&I policies.

Public Affairs professionals can also significantly contribute to Sustainability. They can be advocates for change by promoting sustainable practices within their organizations and in their external advocacy efforts. This requires a comprehensive approach that includes educating stakeholders, influencing public opinion, and lobbying for sustainable policies. They can help simplify complex science and frame sustainable goals in a way that matches broader economic priorities and political agendas, increasing the persuasive power of these advocacy efforts. To be effective, Sustainability and Public Affairs experts must be capable of working together and learn from each other. Sustainability experts need to understand the importance of simple and compelling narratives and of the compromise nature of most political decisions. Public Affairs experts must become knowledgeable in relatively technical areas and stay informed about a wide range of regulations and standards, which can vary significantly between countries and regions.

Looking forward, the synergy between Public Affairs and Sustainability is bound to grow even stronger. Stakeholders, including the general public, increasingly expect sustainable practices to be integrated in the behaviors and the decisions of companies and public decision-makers. Addressing these challenges requires a strategic approach, commitment from top leadership, and a willingness to innovate and adapt. It also involves educating and engaging employees and stakeholders about the importance of Sustainability and the long-term benefits it brings to the organization and society as a whole. This expectation sets the stage for Public Affairs professionals to not only adapt but also lead the way in sustainable policy-making.

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