What is Responsible Communication?

It’s of no surprise to anyone: we are living in an era of great change and turmoil, which not only affects our daily lives and our vision of the future, but also increasingly has tangible effects on our professional activities.

In this context, communication has a new role to play: that of deciphering these current developments in order to support and inspire changes in behaviour, in line with the principles of sustainable development.

This is what we call responsible communication.

1. A Systemic and Holistic Approach

Responsible communication deals with questions of corporate responsibility. But, in the face of the current need for an ecological transition, it also includes the responsibility for communication practices. It is therefore a global and transverse approach that applies to all aspects of communication. And it concerns the entirety of the process – from initial conception to relations with relevant stakeholders - as well as its environmental and social impact.

Le guide de la communication responsable, published by the Agence de la transition écologique en France (the French Agency for Ecological Transition), or ADEME for short, highlights three key dimensions to this approach:

  • Communication on the challenges and commitments of organizations in terms of their corporate social responsibility (CSR);

  • Eco-communication, which aims to reduce the impacts related to professional communication activities (use of resources, harmful products, creation of waste, pollution, etc.);

  • Message authenticity, transparency of communication processes, and respect for stakeholders, as well as the role of communication in promoting a certain vision of society.

2. Important Nuances : Some Definitions that Ensure a Shared Understanding

Depending on the sender, the recipient and the context, a variety of different concepts are used quite regularly when referring to a communications approach that inspires greater public trust by combining value creation, authenticity of actions, and transparency. I propose to untangle some of these concepts in order to ensure a clearer and more objective understanding:

  • Responsible communication manages the image and reputation of the company, as well as its promotional activities (commercial advertising). It seeks to spread a message that is “true” and that reflects reality reliably.

  • Responsible digital technology refers to all information and communication technologies whose economic, ecological, social, and societal footprint has been reduced voluntarily and/or which help humanity to achieve sustainable development objectives.

  • Responsible marketing concerns itself with how offers are developed and how they are marketed, as well as customer relations, with the aim of reducing long-term social and environmental impacts.

  • Societal marketing includes all actions initiated by a non-profit – as opposed to the cause-related marketing tactics often employed by commercial businesses - whose objective is to promote changes in behaviour and attitudes throughout society. It does not sell a product, but rather an idea.

3. Becoming a Driving Force for Change: Yes, But How..?

The range of concepts presented above speaks to the cross-fertilization of ideas and the various spheres of action being explored by a new generation of communicators, eager to do better and to contribute to solving issues they can no longer realistically ignore. This paradigm shift, and the accompanying change to operating methods, also reveals a profound need for coherence and a clearly expressed desire to move from words to action.

In order to position themselves as agents of change, brands and companies will need to transform their communication activities on several levels:

  1. First and foremost, they must firmly establish listening and the co-construction of projects at the centre of their relationship with various stakeholders (citizens, consumers, and actors).

  2. Next, it is essential to regularly assess the relevance of specific actions, as well as their potential environmental and social impacts, in order to ensure they are implemented according to a carefully thought-out, life-cycle oriented approach.

  3. Finally, they must avoid greenwashing* at all costs and commit to conveying messages that drive change and that are aligned with their practices and the challenges of an ecological transition.

Organizations are also confronted with new issues:

  • Integrating sustainable development challenges and new consumer expectations into their global strategy

  • Mobilizing collaborators and suppliers to develop products and services with lesser impacts

  • Customer acceptance of these changes, etc.

Some of these challenges will be difficult to meet, especially those requiring a significant change in perception and mentality. The transition may therefore prove to be long and arduous, even if environmental concerns are immediate and pressing.

You will certainly have to arm yourselves with courage and patience to reap the benefits of your efforts, but remember this one thing: every action counts and is a step in the right direction!

* In the ADEME's Guide de la communication responsable, greenwashing is defined as the use of an unfounded, disproportionate, or inaccurate ecological argument to increase the sales of a product or service.

This article was written by Élodie Malroux.