A Financial Times reporter’s view  on how to tell the sustainability story and why it matters

A Financial Times reporter’s view on how to tell the sustainability story and why it matters

©Sarah Murray
A Financial Times reporter’s view on how to tell the sustainability story and why it matters
Sarah Murray

Specialist writer on corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability,
long-time Financial Times contributor, and former FT staff journalist.

Communications Officer, Advisory Services, IFC

What were the key criteria for the selection of private sector success stories you have featured in sustainability reports you wrote for the FT and other media?

Agribusiness is a vast global industry with one of the world’s heaviest environmental footprints, from water consumption to the pollution resulting from agricultural runoff. Agribusiness has a social footprint, too, since smallholder farmers, as suppliers, play a critical role in strengthening food security. In coming up with story ideas for the FT World Food reports, I tried to reflect these themes, with features that ranged from Harvey Morris’s piece on private sector initiatives helping to fight poverty to Clive Cookson’s feature looking at advances in fertilizers and pesticides and a piece I wrote on how companies are providing agricultural extension services to smallholder farmers, giving them advice and assistance on everything from fertilizer use to accessing agricultural commodities markets.

What is the biggest challenge you think agribusiness faces today?

Researching my book “Moveable Feasts” gave me a sense of just how old the world’s food supply chains are. As I discovered, from the ancient spice routes to the vast global trade activities of the British Empire, food has long traveled vast distances from producers to markets and consumers. In Rome, it was amazing to stand on top of Monte Testaccio and learn that this hill is made entirely from millions of broken pots discarded from a giant food commodities trade that operated during the first and second centuries when olive oil traveled from southern Spain to Italy and across the Roman Empire. Then, the challenge was coming up with the right transport technologies (in this case, the amphora, a large, sturdy ceramic pot).

Today, the challenges facing agribusinesses are very different. There is now enormous pressure to find ways of managing the social and environmental footprint of agribusiness. First, consumers and buyers increasingly care about where their food and agricultural products come from. And companies are beginning to see the benefits of sustainable agriculture – both in terms of being able to reduce risks such as shortages of water or natural resource constraints and, on the social side, being able to create a more robust supply chain by helping smallholders improve the efficiency and sustainability of their farms.

How do you think strategic communications and media relations can contribute to meeting business objectives and pave the way for a more sustainable future?

Companies play a critical role in informing consumers about the sustainability of food, encouraging responsible purchasing and reducing food waste. Part of the way they can do this is through packaging and labeling. However, labels can only go so far and people often don’t take time to read the packaging before making a purchase. There’s a danger too – because in trying to promote what they do through PR efforts, companies can be accused of “greenwashing.” Instead, food and agriculture companies can find other ways to engage with consumers and buyers. For example, many initiatives are seeking to increase traceability in supplies of everything from palm oil to beef. One intriguing communications approach is that of Chipotle, which wants to promote its values on sustainable agriculture and humane livestock practices. Earlier this year, it launched “Farmed and Dangerous,” a satirical comedy series about Big Ag. The jury is out as to whether blending entertainment with advertising will prove successful as a means of spreading a message. But however they engage with customers, companies’ communications must reflect their practices. The most powerful marketing campaign is worthless and poses risks to a company’s reputation if words aren’t matched by action.

Can you share an example of an agribusiness company that led a successful campaign around sustainability in terms of driving business results?

In the UK, the “Behind the label” campaign launched by Marks & Spencer a few years ago is a good example of this. The campaign, which provided information about the way its products (ranging from clothing to food) are sourced, was well regarded and popular with customers.

Is there a common mistake you see agribusiness companies make when it comes to communication strategies and reaching out to journalists like you?

A mistake companies often make – and not just agribusinesses – is in trying to pitch business journalists with stories about the “good works” they are doing. Journalists (and their business readers) want to learn about the challenges companies have faced – particularly business readers, who are probably facing similar challenges. It may be that the company has successfully cut its water use or helped smallholder farmers become more profitable, but what makes the most interesting reading is how the company got there and what hurdles it had to overcome along the way.

Is there any advice you could give to a small agribusiness company that wishes to pro-actively raise their visibility and profile through international media?

If a company can provide real, honest insights into the challenges it has faced, as well as its successes, this would catch the attention of the media. It’s also important to make stories “real” – to connect agribusiness to people’s lives, the food they eat, or, in the case of farmers, how they support their families.

How do you think social media change the game in terms of how companies communicate their work? Can a company in today’s world establish itself as a leader without strategically engaging with social media?

Today, all companies need to engage with social media. It’s no longer a choice. With communications technology so widely available, anyone can broadcast their views globally and anti-corporate campaigns can spread like wildfire. Of course, online media channels present a new challenge for companies – they undermine the traditional command-and-control approach to corporate communications, which can be unnerving. But the danger is that if companies don’t engage with social media channels – with messages that are authentic and honest – they won’t have a voice in the discussion when problems arise or activists start to criticize.

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“Mixing It Up” blog

This blog was launched by Sarah Murray in April 2014 and features thought provoking views on business, society and the environment.

It presents interviews with CEOs, academics, policymakers, social entrepreneurs, authors and others, on innovations and new business models that transform our world and the way we consume natural resources.


“Guardian Sustainable Business” blog

This blog features the views of leading sustainability experts and showcases best practice in corporate sustainability.

It also offers ‘Business Shorts,’ a series of half-day courses on communications, tailored to sustainability professionals.


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