A sustainable future: Where do we start?

Laura Sutherland is the Founder and Director of Aura. She is a senior communication and business consultant and a Chartered practitioner with 20+ years’ experience in integrated public relations and communication.

Aura’s Synergy Framework was developed and launched as a way of helping businesses accelerate to a sustainable future by better integrating strategic communication and sustainable development.

Her vast experience coupled with an enviable ‘toolbox’ have attracted clients from start-ups to a billion-dollar nuclear waste company.

Laura is host of the popular People Buy People podcast, founder of global PR and communication professionals community, PRFest, and she is also a mentor to PR professionals and to senior business leaders.

Laura’s work spans consumer, tech, entrepreneurship and corporate. She is often called up to manage crisis and reputation situations, and in the pandemic, was prominent in helping lead businesses and organisations through re-imagining operations, processes, products and services.

In this podcast, learn all bout Laura’s Synergy framework and how you can apply it to your organisation. Get ready to feel inspired to kick start your sustainable strategy.

Psst.. Fun fact: Laura is a keen pickle connoisseur, and has a pickle business on the side, check it out here.

Laura Sutherland

Founder and Director

Key Topics:

“Aura was launched 14 years ago. I had a business partner at the time, whose name ended in RA as well. And it just kind of made sense and also we were looking for a word that represented something you couldn’t necessarily see because, it was a better feeling. And certainly for public relations, , we’re trying to make people feel a certain way or , how see how something lands and , yeah, it just seemed right. And funnily enough, I mean, ever since I was on Twitter and had the handle Laura from Laura, people just think it’s hilarious. , I used to have, when we had the office, , I would answer the phone and and people would say, Was that Laura from Laura? And start laughing ‘Cause it was just a funny thing, <laugh>. But yeah, so that’s kind of how it started <laugh>.”

“I suppose there’s a couple things who firstly, I actually reframed the business back in 2018 to be much more focused in stakeholder relations. So really getting to know them with data and really getting to understand motivations and, psychology, behaviour change, et cetera. And that kind of led me on to thinking about purpose, which people have been talking about for years now, Purpose this, purpose that. But it did start making me think about the relationship between stakeholders and organisations. And, we’ve talked for a long time now about public relations and communication being a strategic management function. But in order for it to be that it has to help advise, it has to help lead and, , if it’s helping advise, then, we’re advising on things about, how to make businesses more responsible, how to make them better, how to make them better for stakeholders and in line with their values.

And then I thought to myself, well, if I’m advising people like that, why am I not the freeing my business as the business that helps other responsible businesses by being responsible itself and by being, the sort of guide, if you like, and the helping hand. And, I worked with somebody for a while because it’s really difficult when you work by herself to understand, how you can write something down and extract it from your brain. Because if you’re by yourself, you’ve got all these thoughts in your head, but to extract them, sometimes you need someone to ask a question. And, the person I was working with, asked the right questions and allowed me to articulate more what I was gonna be able to do and why I was focusing on that and able to do it.

And, organisations don’t know where to start when it comes to, climate and sustainability. There’s a lot of information out there. They hear terms like sustainability, climate change, transformation, which can be one and the same thing, but actually they don’t know where to start. And so I worked, in communication for over 20 years, but 10 of those years, in fact, more than that, 13 years, maybe since 2009, I’ve worked in climate change and sustainability communication and looking at how we engage people in that conversation. And in the last two years I’ve worked with some organisations and clients who I’ve noticed internally and externally haven’t been doing a great job of telling people what they’re doing and bringing people along that journey. And since I joined the PRCs Misinformation and Climate Strategy Group, which is quite a, , <laugh> a lengthy term for the group there.

But since I joined that, I started to realize more about the opportunities that are ahead and more about why things are disconnected, disjointed, and where actually I could have that practical input and help clients join things together and understand their stakeholder needs. And so by joining 13 years of climate sustainability experience with all the stakeholder stuff I’ve been really focusing on for the last four or five years into the strategic stuff that I work on, I thought, do you know what, now is the time to focus on something that’s actually going to let my business have the maxim amount of impact. Because I talk about other businesses having impact, what’s my impact? What am I gonna leave as a legacy? And I hope that by the way that I have done it, , how I’ve done it and how I can explain and help other businesses and organisations and brands, I can help them do the same thing.”

“I think you’ve made the point I keep talking about is the fact that, , when you say sustainability to people, they think immediately or it’s something to do with environment. So it’s climate stuff, it’s recycling or whatever, but actually, if you look at the UN sustainable development goals, it goes into culture, inclusivity, wellbeing, it covers, talent, retention and acquisition. It talks about so much of what makes a business organisation sustainable. And that’s where my focus is. It’s about the sustainable opportunity for a business to exist in the future. And, my website says the only inevitable is change are you ready? Because that is the thing we’re going to keep on involving technology evolves, people evolve, their thinking evolves, as the PRCAs research results from the group have shown, we’ve even evolved in our thinking around misinformation, climate crisis since last year.

The opportunity for us is to ensure, and I’ll explain it, but be more bold, be more brave, and to help lead with what is right, that responsible organisation, responsible business attitude, and the research results have said that, we’ve, we’ve seen a sort of encouraging rise, in number of PR and communication professionals helping their businesses and organisations understand the climate crisis and how they can effectively communicate and play their part. It’s also showing that we’re growing confidence when we spot greenwashing and feel comfortable pushing back. But we have a responsibility to ensure that any unethical communication or attempts at it are challenged. I think that the call to action about being more brave is, is because we need to have that, confidence in ourselves and our abilities, our skills, and our thinking to be able to call these things out.

Because if you don’t call them out, they will go on and on and on. If you look back at that BBC series, I dunno if you managed to see it, it was about the 1990s political public relations misinformation spread or about climate change and how, hugely interesting, fascinating. And we can share the link on the show notes. But it just shows you that these things that go unattended or misinformation, disinformation that’s deliberately spread has a long term impact and a detrimental one at that. And we have a responsibility to be ethical communicators to our organisations, but to the people that they represent. And, we’re all in this for the good of the planet because we want it to exist, but equally we have to think about the next generation. We have to think about, , what we can do to be better at what we do and why wouldn’t we want to be better and to try things differently, to innovate and to change with the times.

I think it’s those organisations that don’t change with the times that won’t be, they won’t be here. They aren’t sustainable. , it’s the old fashioned ones who are dictating what their staff say, do think, et cetera, that will not be here because no one wants to work for businesses like that anymore. So it’s working together, it’s understanding each other. It’s about representing and living those values, not just seeing it, but actually doing it as well. And as communicators, as people that are the aura and making people feel a certain way, making people act a certain way as well. We have that massive opportunity. And no one else within an organisation really, apart from the CEO or the MD, would have that 360 degree view that can bring all departments together, that can bring all people together because we have that and we have that ability to do it, but we’re not, we’re not there yet. Not everyone has the same thinking as me. I’m granted, but part of what I’m hoping to do through my work, through the PRCA and through, my business, is to educate other people as well, because that’s really important that people start to understand the opportunity and that’s the way it should be seen as an opportunity.”

“So it’s called the Synergy Framework and it’s synergy because it’s hope that organisations and businesses can work in synergy with the planet, so people and planet, and it’s that kind of fuel, it’s not intangible necessarily, but it’s that feeling that you get if something, being in alignment with something else. And very much what we should be doing as organisations. The Synergy framework split into six, just six components, and it’s only six because I really have worked very hard to make it simple, not dumb it down, but make it simple so that people can understand at a glance what it looks like and how it works. So the first part is, clarify. So it’s clarifying organisational objectives, clarifying thinking around sustainability and clarifying what people really want to achieve from that. So if I was a communication consultant, I would go in and clarify all that sort of stuff before I could really move on with the brief.

The next bit is the education part. So, we need to educate people that are gonna be helping us with this around why we’re doing it, what we’re doing, what the time skills are, and what we’re hoping would be an expected outcome. The next bit is the research phase where we go in research our stakeholders, we understand their needs, we understand their values, again, because part of my experience in the last number of years has been that organisations don’t know their stakeholders that well. They don’t, and they don’t use the information they do have to their advantage to properly engage with them, making things relevant, grouping them into proper groups, not just broad brush strokes about where they live, but proper things around what their health issues might be or, what their beliefs might be. These are things that we can use to really get to know people and to start properly engaging them.

So then after you’ve done your research, need to go and do your audit on terms of their channels and what channels they’re using and what they look like and what the opportunities are there. Then underneath that you would come back and you’d do the analysis of all that and what does that actually mean? You’ve done all this research and audit, what does that actually mean? To start looking for themes and bringing those sort of broader themes out. And then moving on to strategy, which is where the sustainable development goals come in. There are 17, but there are 169 actions, to achieve within each of those, with, oh, sorry, overall within the 17 sustainable development goals. So which ones are relevant to your organisation, What ones aren’t relevant, what can you do as a priority? What are quick wins and what are maybe more longer terms you’re gonna have to develop, but importantly, how can you fit your stakeholder needs and all the stuff you’ve done and research from that with these new sustainable development goals to achieve proper impact.

So then once you’ve done all that and you’ve developed your strategy out of it, you’ll come back to clarify again, because you have to go back and clarify that this is what you wanna do and this is how you’re gonna do it. And the time skills that were set, then you have to go back out and educate because you have to go and educate everyone in the organisation about this is now the strategy, this is how we’re gonna do it, and this is your part to play. Then the research bit comes in because that’s where you’re starting to do your benchmarking, your monitoring and obviously at the end you’ll start to do your evaluation piece as well. And so it just goes around in circles, but the main point is the nucleus in the middle, which is the organisational impact and once you go on from there, it’s about learning and then it’s about sharing those learnings with other people as well.

But that’s the broad look of the framework and how it works is that it is applicable to every organisation, public sector, private sector, third sector brand, one man band to multimillion pound, billion pound organisation. It is relevant because it’s the un sustainable development goals that are driving it, and that is, you and white. I’m not reinventing something that’s already there. What I’m doing is taking my 20 plus years experience, 25 years in business and starting to think properly about what do businesses actually need and how can I help solve that problem? And the synergy framework is perfect for that. It will also then help feed into the sort of final element, which is the reporting aspect of it. So environmental report annual report, social impact report, , all those type of integrated reporting as well. It will play a part in helping write those and tell that story. So in short that’s what it looks like, but I could go on for hours.”

“Two places. Firstly the website, so Auraadvisory.co. head to the Synergy framework page and explains a little bit more there. , and also just to speak to me because I’m conducting one-to-ones, and doing sort of webinars around what it looks like, how it can work, et cetera. Because I do believe that by sharing that thinking it will help other people to formulate their own thinking, and to start on that journey as well. So it’s kind of a bit of a kickstarter for people. I can have as much or as little input as people need once they’ve, once they’ve started on that. I think that’s the thing. It’s not one one size fits all. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s, it has to be viewed as a long term plan. The main thing is, is that people start somewhere and they start now. That would be my call to action.”

“I think it’s a byproduct of actually being a good business. And if you like the whole layout of what I’ve done is around get to know your stakeholders, know what they stand for, are they in alignment with your business? Okay. Strategic communications, how you engage them in that conversation. Bring them along in the journey. You then got your sort of measurement and evaluation piece of what you’re doing with them, taking them in that journey and what impact you’re having. The impact surely should be that if you’re a charity, you’ve got more donations coming in that , you, these are goals you should be setting at the start. These smart objectives. This is why the clarity and clarify part of the synergy framework is so important because what are you trying to achieve? The impact doesn’t have to be just a carbon reduction.

Yes, that is a goal, but it should also be about there’s a carbon reduction, but at the same time you’ve built up more trust within your workforce. Or that you have managed to give something back to an organisation in the community to help them be more sustainable. Or like one of my clients has done, they’ve, it’s a social impact project where they have, developed a digital tool, which is a paid forward scheme. And we did this launch, it’s in the tourism sector, and they now have been enabled to give free tours to people in the community who are disconnected, disengaged, and who have been through real trauma in their lives, but through storytelling and culture have reconnected them to their own city to make them feel part of it. And so the love, the human impact that has come through from that quite simple thinking has had a massive impact on people.

And this is the idea of social impact and human impact. It’s not just about sustainable fashion. It’s not just about the bigger overarching themes. If you think about what we are on the planet is we’re human beings at the end of the day and what do human beings need? What do we need to survive? And what do we need then to thrive? And these all have to be factored into wellbeing. It’s not a nice to have any more wellbeing, the pandemic has shown is that we need to wellbeing to be really integrated in organisations and our thinking to ensure that we’re well after and that we look after ourself and our colleagues and our teams, et cetera. By doing that, you’d probably have a better culture.

If you’ve got a better culture, you’re retaining your staff. If you’re retaining your staff, you’re not wasting time and effort and money on going out there and getting new staff. You’re then getting building up that human capital within the organisation and they’re going out there and telling people what a great business you are to work for. And they’re your ambassadors. They’re where you’re building up that amazing, opportunity to continue growth and continue what you’re doing it’s all a big, big part of a process and, and everything has an impact in each other.”


“Yes. I think community is really important. People within the CommsHero community support each other. They feel it from you as the leader. They feel it through the team who are also working there and on Twitter and things like that. But they’ll also then feel it amongst each other whether they’re meeting at online stuff or whether they, they meet in person or whatever they’re doing. Community and something like community building, is something I’ve been talking about for years. Because if you don’t have that aspect in a business or an organisation of building a community, you’re not really then engaging people. It comes back to that stakeholder piece, doesn’t it? You’re not really then engaging that the audience you want to be engaging. And if you’re not building that, you’re not building human capital. And you’re not really starting to kind of benefit from all the things that that type of community can really give you.

And I don’t mean just the swag <laugh>, which people love, but I think it was one of the CommsHeroes a couple years ago, I entered in Twitter, I think it was like tweet of the day or something like that and ended up getting Sharpies. And I was like, this is an absolute winner getting free sharpies. Woohoo. But it’s things like that you kind of keep engaging people and as I say, it’s not just part of the free swag. It is part of the bigger conversation around an industry, particularly the public relations element that was once known for being particularly exclusive is now starting to become more friendly, more inclusive by, because because of these types of communities that are being developed. PR Fest it’s had a rest this year, but it was the same.

It kind of brought people together that would never have met each other before and now are like doing business together or bought businesses from each other. And all sorts are going on. And I think that’s great that we can do that. And the more that people share amongst our community and PR and communication, I think the more we share, the more we’re being open to being nice and kind and being approachable. And I think that’s really important as communicators, because if we’re not then we are being exclusive and we aren’t being inclusive and we’re not really setting that example particularly for maybe more vulnerable people or new people into the industry think it’s really important. So well done for the stuff you do for CommsHero.”