Environmental Management Roundtable,
Stockholm, June 14, 2000
Focusing on Performance Evaluation and External Communications
ECOLOGIA Position paper
THE VALUE OF EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
External communications support the main goals of EMS in the following two ways:
- Through ensuring the information flow from various stakeholders to the organisation, they help to meaningfully define the organisation's environmental policy, targets, as well as operational performance, environmental condition and management performance indicators.
- Through ensuring the information flow from the organisation to various stakeholders they promote the credibility of EMS (and any EMS standards such as the ones of ISO 14000 series).
Thus, external communications are instrumental in establishing a credible, efficient, and effective EMS.
In addition to their 'instrumental' value, external communications may also be considered as a value in themselves. This happens within organisations who want to demonstrate their commitment to citizens' environmental rights and who share the conviction that an improved access to environmental information would enhance the quality and the implementation of environmental decisions, enable consumers to make informed environmental choices and promote democratic decision-making mechanisms.
According to ECOLOGIA's experience, voluntary environmental reporting can lead to the enhanced confidence of investors and shareholders and easier access to investment market. Active involvement of stakeholders can help the organisation better identify priorities of environmental programmes, improve training programmes for employees, develop new directions of environmental marketing and encourage the trust of regulators.
KEY PRINCIPLES OF EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATIONS
- External communication should be interactive and work in both ways
- External communication should be sensitive to the needs of both the organisation and its stakeholders with whom the organisation intends to communicate. External communications should not discriminate different audiences based on their language, technical skills, race or other factors. Thus, the content and form of external communications should be developed in a participatory manner
- External communications should be objective, use sound data sources, be clear and accessible to its intended audiences (in terms of language, form of presentation, etc.)
THE SUGGESTED SCOPE OF A GUIDANCE ON EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
There is a need for several kinds of guidance on external communication: process-oriented as well as product-oriented. The former guidance should focus on the process of developing and implementing an external communication programme (for example, in relation to EMS introduction and implementation, certification, environmental labelling etc.). The latter may involve specific advice on information products, such as environmental reports, which constitute such a programme. It is also possible that both types of guidance are combined in a single document.
Guidance of this type may cover the main principles (see above) and the essential elements (stages) of the process of external communication accompanying certain organisation's activities such as:
Guidance should emphasise that all these elements of the communication strategy should be performed in consultation with key stakeholders, such as the local community, government regulators, and other interested parties.
- identifying the objectives and audiences of the external communication programme;
- identifying the existing information which may serve these information needs and any related issues of confidentiality;
- identifying the types of information to be communicated (these may be, for example, performance indicators of different types as appropriate to the needs of the audiences), in which form it should be communicated (what should be the information products?);
- setting up responsibilities for external communication (including data collection, analysis, validation (if necessary by a third party) and dissemination);
- monitoring the quality, performance and effectiveness of external communications and adjusting them if and as necessary.
Additionally, such guidance should also define 'environmental information' which should be included in external communications.
This type of guidance covers the content and format of particular information products used in external communication, such as periodic environmental statements, environmental reports, or Internet sites, etc. It is possible that several types of guidance might be needed depending on particular information products. For example, guidance on producing a validated Environmental Statement may follow the principles outlined in EMAS (esp. Article 5).
ESSENTIAL CONTENT ELEMENTS OF ANY EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
The form and the content of the external communications should be appropriate to its objectives and serve the needs of the intended audiences. Ideally, the objectives and the audience of the external communications should be clear from its content. Other key elements of external communications may be the following:
- Methods of obtaining data and arriving at conclusions should be acknowledged as well as any external data sources
- External communication should use widely recognised frameworks for assembling and presenting the data, such as, for example, the one defined in ISO 14031
- Care should be taken in the presentation of information to make sure that it is accessible to the non-specialist. The layout of the communications should enable the reader to find and assimilate data easily and quickly
- Unnecessarily technical or obscure language should be avoided. Technical terms, acronyms and initials should be defined.
- Information should be presented without bias and receive the emphasis appropriate to its importance in the context of the EMS. Prominence and emphasis should be given to potentially significant environmental issues. Adverse impacts should not be disguised.
POSSIBLE FORMS OF EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
External communication can take a variety of forms depending on their purpose and intended audiences. If external communications are considered as essentially a two-way activity, then the following forms of communication may be useful:
There is no 'most effective' form of external communications - it is not a particular form, but the process of determining it which defines the success of a communication strategy.
- production of special printed or electronic documents and disseminating them to concerned audiences (or making them publicly available e.g. through libraries or Internet sites); such reports might be validated by a third party to increase their credibility;
- establishing more open access procedure for existing documents and information;
- organising public hearing, public meetings, "open door" events, exhibitions, seminars, etc. where communication is occurring more interactively;
- setting up hot-lines and other services for disseminating information and collecting stakeholders' comments; conducting surveys for the latter purpose.
THE POTENTIAL VALUE OF A NEW ISO DOCUMENT ON EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
Potential benefits of ISO guidance on external communications include:
- standardised guidance could reduce confusion for stakeholders and organisations about what to communicate and how;
- guidance developed by ISO would use ISO terminology and could be easier for organizations to implement;
- organisations may be more inclined to use communication guidance developed (and, thus, sanctioned) by ISO;
- stakeholders may be more willing to accept external communications developed according to ISO guidance;
- if implemented, ISO guidance on external communication will reinforce and promote other ISO standards and guidance (as described elsewhere above)
- ISO guidance on external communication will act in synergy with other international conventions and treaties, such as the Århus Convention, regulating access to environmental information.