Five “Keys” to Unlock a Successful Sustainability Program - Key 3: Employee Engagement and Empowerment

Employees are closest to the community of stakeholders because they are community stakeholders with the unique perspective of knowing the needs of both the community and the company.
Jul 24, 2012 6:45 PM ET
Campaign: The New PR

Posted by John Friedman

Recently I attended a conference on social media. One presenter offered up the notion that companies are no longer able to control their ‘brand’ or image using the example of a recent YouTube video ‘United Breaks Guitars’ in which a professional musician sings about how the airline baggage handlers broke his guitar and the company refused to compensate him for the loss of his instrument. When it was my turn to present I asked the audience – in all seriousness – if they really honestly thought that this was something new.

No matter how well the press release is written, how many millions of dollars are spent on advertising, the image of any company or organization is in the hands of the company or organization’s employees; and the image is managed by the actions, behaviors and attitudes of those employees. Good PR or marketing cannot overcome a bad reality. The everyday actions of employees - how they treat customers - influences the way that customers feel about the company.

It does not take a seminal event like the PB oil spill, someone who is unhappy can have an audience of dozens, hundreds or thousands thanks to the internet, and if their experience resonates, the message – whether it be a well-produced music video or a 140 character Tweet – can find its way to millions of people.

The most fundamental reason for empowering employees and engaging them in sustainability programs is the same reason local employees are the best at dealing with customers, communities, regulators, etc.  

Empowering employees is critical because they can help define how the program is implemented by identifying local issues, opinion leaders, and opportunities. But an even more valuable role is that they are closest to, and therefore able to identify, the impediments whether they be cultural, religious or rooted in the existing official and unofficial power structures. If a company wants to win the battle for hearts and minds, they'll do it by actively engaging their employees and treating them as the heart of their success.  

Click here to continue reading and comment

To read more posts from this series, click here

John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW). 

Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. 

His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.

Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.

He can be reached at, is @JohnFriedman on Twitter and can be connected on LinkedIn and Facebook