Sustainable Development Goals? How to use them in communication

Pearl • 8 minute read • 19/10/2020
Media monitoring, Reputation management
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In 2015, 17 sustainable development goals were drawn up by all countries affiliated with the United Nations. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) form a global compass for challenges such as poverty, education and the climate crisis. As an organisation, how do you create relevance in a world in which you need to meet all the sustainability requirements? And what do you, as a communications professional, focus on in your work? How do you find the right sustainability topics and issues to communicate on? This blog offers a guide for marketing and (corporate) communications professionals who are struggling within this complicated domain.

Since the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate agreement, sustainable business is no longer a choice: sustainable business is a requirement of the government, investors, and the general population. Sustainability is therefore no longer just an important pillar for image and reputation, but, more than anything, a spearhead for organisational survival. The idea behind the SDGs is that no one is left behind and that everyone should be able to build a better future. The world would then look a lot brighter in 2030.

Development of media attention during turbulent times


Media attention is an indication of the socially responsible efforts of organisations. In the past year we’ve seen a lot of peaks and dips when we look at the amount of media attention for the SDGs. We see the largest peaks around September, both in 2019 and in 2020, due to the SDG action month. During that month, various initiatives take place to create awareness and put the SDGs back into public, corporate and media agendas. We see the biggest dips during the summer (July to August), when there’s usually not much going on and not much to write about.

We also see a major dip in media attention for the SDGs surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak in the Netherlands. This is a logical consequence, because in the months of February to April 2020, media attention was dominated by COVID-19 and other topics, such as sustainability, were put off for later.

However, the impact of COVID-19 on media attention for SDGs was temporary, after April we see media attention for the sustainable development goals rising again. In fact, media attention for a number of specific SDGs is even greater after the COVID-19 outbreak compared to the preceding period. Attention to goals such as “Living on the Land” and “Sustainable Cities and Communities” has increased between 30 and 40 percent since February 2020. This is partly due to the forest fires in California, among other issues such as #WorldHabitatDay and Dutch initiatives such as Green up the City (urban farming) and Circle City (circular and inclusive construction). Unfortunately though, we see that media attention for the “Zero Hunger” and “End of Poverty” goals has fallen sharply because of COVID-19.

Media exposure of the 17 SDGs

Of all the SDGs, “Climate Action” is the most discussed in the media, followed by “Responsible Consumption and Production”, “Partnership to Achieve the Goals”, “Quality Education” and “Affordable and Renewable Energy”. Of them all, “Living in the Water” and “Clean Water and Sanitation” are the least frequently discussed in the Dutch media.


Click here for specification and explanation regarding the 17 SDGs.

Growing focus on climate

Within the SDG ‘Climate action’, efforts in the field of global warming, biodiversity, energy transition and circularity are the most important topics. This also explains the popularity of the SDGs “Responsible Consumption and Production” and “Affordable and Sustainable Energy”.

The media attention surrounding these SDGs is mainly the result of environmental organisations and activists such as Urgenda. We also see many government agencies such as RVO and various ministries and municipalities getting involved in the conversation. Universities, research institutions and financial organisations such as the Stichting Lokaal Geld (Local Money Foundation) and the Eerlijke Geldwijzer (Fair Money Guide) also contribute. And of course the food and agriculture sector is also prominently visible in the online conversations.

Together we are strong

It’s important we work together to achieve sustainable goals. The SDG “Partnership to Achieve the Goals” has been one of the most discussed sustainability goals in the media this year. The focus is on bringing attention to new partnerships that will help us in achieving sustainable goals. In addition, the media also calls for new partnerships to be formed. Examples of this are chain and cross-sectoral collaborations between the business community, education, and the government.

Important groups that dominate the discussion about this objective are government organisations and municipalities. Think of CBS (Statistics Netherlands), various ministries, universities, research institutions and business organisations such as the KVK (Chamber of Commerce), VNO/NVW and MKB Nederland. In addition, various coalitions have emerged that are very active in the media. The Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition is a good example of this. This includes AkzoNobel, DSM, FrieslandCampina, Heineken, KLM, Philips, Shell, and Unilever.

More coverage on quality education

In the field of quality education, we see a peak in the coverage on events such as the ‘Dag tegen Kinderarbeid’ (“Day against Child Labour”), where mainly non-profit organisations are active, such as Edukans, the Liliane Foundation, Plan Nederland, Leren voor Morgen (Learning for Tomorrow) and GO! Onderwijs (Education). In addition, government agencies, ministries and municipalities also lead a large part of the online conversations.

In the Netherlands, we are seeing a focus on both international initiatives and national efforts. At the international level, communication is mainly about equal opportunities in education, especially for girls in developing countries. In the field of national education, the focus is mainly on an adapted curriculum for Dutch schools, such as the introduction of racism as a compulsory curriculum.

What should we focus on?

As a communication professional, you will undoubtedly struggle with the choice of which sustainable topics should be placed at the top of your agenda. With the help of media analyses, you can gain more insight into the current trends within the sustainable domain. As an organisation, how do you respond to the trends we see online? Are you going with the mainstream flow or is it perhaps better to focus on the more underexposed initiatives in order to remain relevant as an organisation?

The importance of legitimacy

Is your organisation behaving according to the unwritten rules within our society? An organisation is considered legitimate if its actions contribute to the social system of norms and values. This is not only important for satisfying the stakeholders, but also for your overall relevance and organisational survival. This means that as an organisation you cannot lag behind your environment, the industry and your competitors. As an organisation, you “have to” work with sustainable goals — whether you want to or not.


Don’t want to lag behind other organisations within your industry? Focus on the SDGs on which they also focus. The graph above shows the development, over time, of much-discussed objectives. You can see that the SDG ‘Climate action’ has gained a lot of ground in a short time. Organisations such as Fairtrade Original and Too Good To Go need to respond to this in order to remain relevant. However, don’t lose sight of the SDGs that are less visible in the overall media landscape. The government and the population expect organisations to focus on all 17 sustainable development goals. Only by doing this can you really claim legitimacy as an organisation.

Staying afloat by building up your reputation

By doing the same as the other organisations within your industry (and preferably a little more) you can remain legitimate as an organisation. However, you also achieve a good reputation by differentiating yourself. You can distinguish yourself from others by being innovative and coming up with new, creative ideas.

SDGs such as “Living in the water” and “Clean water and Sanitation” are still discussed relatively little in the media. Many organisations miss opportunities here. It is precisely by highlighting these little-discussed SDGs that you can distinguish yourself as an organisation in this sustainable domain. Claim these domains and differentiate yourself with unique actions that contribute to clean waters and water supplies.

Valuable analysis for your organisation?

With the help of these media analyses, Spotler Engage can provide valuable insights into any opportunities or threats for your organisation. Do you see opportunities for sharpening your sustainability profile or share of voice? Do you have trouble choosing which SDGs to prioritise in your communications? Or do you need persuasion to get management on board with anything? The experts at Spotler Engage provide data-driven and action-oriented advice in the field of brand reputation and market trends. This is of course tailor-made advice, tailored to your wishes and requirements. Contact us!

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Pearl Vink
As a driven writer with a passion for heavy metal, social media, marketing and events, I enjoy writing interesting, thought provoking content for Spotler Engage. It makes my day when I hear that I inspire organizations and their customers with interesting articles, a nice conversation, a stimulating newsletter or a convincing social media post.

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