Unilever’s comms chief: an agent of radical change

When Unilever launched its audacious new green business strategy in 2010, few people had any idea of its implications and ramifications. The goals set out in the ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ were both ambitious and disruptive: to double the size of the business, to reduce its environmental footprint and to increase its positive social impacts in ten years.

Recognising that such profound change was a communications issue as much as anything else, last year sustainability was put under the remit of the communications function. Now as senior vice-president at Unilever for sustainable business and communications Sue Garrard is responsible not only for global communication, but also for embedding the sustainable business programme across the entire organisation. It seems that Unilever is not only pioneering a new business model, it is also changing the face of PR.

“We want the whole company to own the plan. This is a huge change programme that needs to be infused gradually into the business. It means conquering hearts and minds as much as building a business case, so you need to understand the soft levers of change and comms people are brilliant at it,” explains Garrard. “We also have knowledge of the issues, which comes from talking at a very granular level about them, and we drive the internal narrative. It has been a natural fit to bring these two roles together.”

Marrying growth and sustainability was initially the vision of CEO Paul Polman. When he took the helm of the company in 2009, he recognised the risks of running a business in the food, home and personal care sectors in a world of finite resources, an expanding population and growing inequalities. But he also saw the market opportunities.

Hence the Sustainable Living Plan. The strategy was designed to help more than a billion people improve health and wellbeing through hygiene and high quality nutrition, halve the environmental impacts of sourcing, making and using products, and enhance the livelihoods of millions, promoting fairness and new opportunities throughout the supply chain.

A woman’s job

It is as profound a change in the way that business works and the way it engages with society as we are likely to witness this side of the revolution. And a woman seems the perfect fit for the job. Several studies have emphasised the role of women as agents of change. A study of Fortune 500 companies, for example, found that women are more likely to be promoted to CEO at times of crisis or radical change.

Another survey by the Pew Research Center in the US found that in business, women are considered better than men when it comes to being honest and ethical. Garrard is one of the few women in senior corporate positions (just 19.5 per cent of senior roles across the top City employers are held by women, according to the Financial Times) and she is quite relaxed about it. She never felt that being a woman was a complication: “In fact, because we bring fresh perspectives, often men who have not worked with many senior women before find it quite stimulating.” She is convinced that “the complementary roles that senior women play within organisations are incredibly powerful.”

So why is it so difficult for women to climb to senior roles? …

Continue reading on PR Week, registration may be required. Published in March 2015. Photo: tea production in India, via Pixabay.