This article was first published on O’Dwyer’s PR.

We have reached a tipping point where companies should assume it is a case of when, not if the sustainability of their industry or product faces the public spotlight. To address this, communicators need to get on the front foot in ways which will feel uncomfortable to many.

A rapidly growing list of industries and products have taken heat for their contribution to global warming. First oil and gas, then plastics, and now textiles have made the front pages, with politicians and consumers demanding companies change their ways to mitigate their environmental impact.

And the pace at which new industries are joining this list is rapidly speeding up. Early indicators suggest discussions about sand usage and “sand wars” are shortly to gain prominence.

Challenges to consumer culture have moved far beyond one or two sectors, where executives can remain comfortably reassured they will not be targeted. In the coming years, some will argue that consumption – upon which the global economic model is predicated – is being called into question.

For communicators unaccustomed to this level, or type, of scrutiny, the potential task at hand must feel overwhelming.  Compounding this, the most effective actions may feel counterintuitive, even to the most seasoned communicators. But for some communicators, this is also their moment.  There is an unprecedented case to be made for the role of the communicator as executive right hand, bringing objective external reality to their leadership and challenging them as never before.

Below are a few lessons from those industries and companies that were first to face these existential reputational challenges:

Address what can’t be seen (yet)

Historically, organizations have focused on their external sustainability efforts, attracting the attention of legislators, media and customers.  But as transparency and reporting expectations grow, and employees seek reassurance they are in a role of which they can be proud, this will be turned on its head.  Having your own house in order will be central to your sustainability story one way or the other, so it is best to take control and find and fix any bad actors, before others do.

What does this mean in practice?

Communicators are adept at playing the journalist and probing with difficult questions.  Approach your leaders with the challenging questions they will shortly be expected to answer about your own organisation, if they haven’t already. This may mean seeking out new data, or new advice, or convening your detractors, in order to ask the hard questions first.

For example, Novartis established a dashboard tracking its Scope 3 emissions through its supply chain, identifying impact hot spots and working with providers to reduce the company’s impact.

Target, track, tell

As a strategic advisor, I have spent over a decade advising clients that their reputational credibility depends on communicating what they are doing today, not what might be done in the future. However, most companies acknowledge that the sustainability challenge is large and complex and is inevitably a process. Stretching, but achievable, targets are integral to this journey.

What does this mean in practice?

Success lies in developing medium term (c. 10-year) targets and clearly and transparently tracking progress. Communicators are key to convening their leadership, helping to frame these targets in a way which reflects the needs and interests of internal and external stakeholders, and advise on reporting approaches and regularity.

Companies from Amcor to Unilever have established clear sustainability strategies, with associated targets, and are committed to sharing feedback and progress regularly and transparently.

Collaborate radically

For most corporates, partnership has often had one of three purposes: commerciality, legislative change or halo effect. In none of these cases have competitors sought to innovate truly collaboratively to solve industry challenges. Today, the industries most criticized are doing exactly that, prioritizing rapidly addressing issues over historical concerns with competition and IP.

What does this mean in practice?

Communicators must work with their business to seek partnership opportunities that focus on innovation apace, as well as communications. Here again communicators have a clear convening role, ensuring the business is aligned around its partnerships strategy and the breakthroughs it is seeking.

From the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, competitors in some of the most criticized industries are working collectively to address their sector’s biggest sustainability challenges.

Tell the whole story

For the last decade, many companies have been focused on developing or sharing their corporate purpose: the reason they exist.  As consultants, we have emphasized the need for simplicity and clarity in these – making them engaging and memorable. Today, however, companies must go beyond purpose to unpacking complexity, and must be capable of articulating their overall impact in credible longform.

What does this mean in practice?

Communicators must lead their organizations to proactively develop a data set which shows their positive and negative impacts in the round to be ready to storytell about how, and where, the good outweighs the bad.

For example, this research for Blue Apron provides a balanced story on the sustainability impact of meal prep kits.

Communicators need to grasp this opportunity before it passes them by. In years to come, nobody will be thanked for continuing with the same activities, as the world rapidly changes around them. Instead, corporate reputations will be bolstered and careers built by communicators who get on the front foot, speaking the truth to power, turning industry truisms on their heads and challenging decades of experience and learned behavior.