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The Role of Public Affairs in Corporate Sustainability Programs

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Posted on September 14, 2010

Listen to Ann on Sustainability

Companies face growing external pressures to address an array of environmental issues from their greenhouse gas emissions and energy use to their impact on the water supply. NGOs, the media, citizen bloggers and increasingly shareholders demand transparency and commitments, which are often communicated as part of a company’s overall public relations program.  The uncertain legislative and regulatory environment, however, suggests the opportunity for closer integration of sustainability programs with a corporation’s public affairs activities.

Corporate public affairs teams have long been engaged in helping companies fend off legislation or regulation they deem anti-business or anti-competitive.  But the sustainability movement offers an opportunity for some proactive repositioning.  Given that corporate sustainability programs are usually voluntary efforts taken on behalf of the company to serve community interest, public relations, and financial goals, these programs can be a valuable tool in the public affairs toolkit.

Companies that engage constructively in policy-making with regard to environmental management and energy efficiency issues stand to enhance their reputation among lawmakers and decision-makers.  Fortune 200 company NextEra Energy (formally FPL Group) is a good case in point.  Utility companies were once the target of much criticism by environmentalists.  However, Chairman Lew Hay has played an active role in D.C. as a proponent of cap and trade legislation and a national renewable electricity standard.  Regardless of the legislative outcome, this utility executive has emerged as the unlikely darling of the environmental community while maintaining his star status in the business world.  He was recently awarded the Ernst & Young Business Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award while the company he leads earned a spot on the highly-regarded Dow Jones Sustainability Index and continues to enjoy a healthy stock price.

While not every corporate leader with a commitment to sustainability will jump into policy debates, there are tangible and valuable ways which public affairs teams can leverage these proactive efforts to engage stakeholders, impress decision-makers and support overall policy objectives.


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