Five questions with… Jonathan Yohannan, Director of Public Relations at Panera

Jonathan Yohannan

An expert in corporate social responsibility strategy and communications, Jonathan specializes in turning business issues and commitments into brand opportunities. He keeps Panera abreast of emerging issues, engages with stakeholders and communicates the company’s commitments to its various audiences. Prior to Panera, he worked with with clients such as eBay, General Mills, Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé Waters North America, Reebok, Starbucks and Timberland.

Jonathan served as a panelist for the Publicity Club’s recent Masters’ Institute event covering Corporate Social Responsibility. Designed for senior-level corporate communications professionals, the event’s discussion focused on how CSR can improve the bottom line, increase stakeholder loyalty and help recruit and retain the employees central to both.

Following the panel, Jonathan took a few moments to provide some insight into the state of CSR.

In your opinion, what is the state of Corporate Social Responsibility and what is the biggest challenge?
Companies are focusing on the right types of issues. Where there’s opportunity are more in terms of engagement with employees and associates, so that they know what the company stands for. And also doing a better job of using stakeholder engagement to drive strategy. The biggest challenge is focus. Being committed to being able to say no. You can’t do everything for everybody. You have to be willing to have a strong point of view on certain issues and to be able to lean in on certain things, and mitigate risk where you can.

You have a unique perspective in that you had significant experience in CSR on the agency side before arriving at Panera. How have you found that one helps the other?
It’s nice to have been engaged with a number of different companies and different sectors. The agency side allows you to dive in deep and come back out. The nice part about the corporate side is that you own sell-in. If it’s going to fail, it’s on you. So you can really own that responsibility. And it’s about how to mobilize like-minded individuals at an organization to drive change internally and externally. There’s pros and cons to both. On the agency side you get to learn a lot about different kinds of businesses. When I was on the agency side, I had the opportunity to work with so many different companies. You really get a nice sneak preview. You learn about the cultures and the challenges and issues. But now, it’s nice to be able to focus.

Panera is fairly well known for some of its CSR initiatives. How does it fit within the company culture?
For us, from our CEO down, it’s always been embedded into the culture. In fact it’s never been called CSR, and our CEO probably hates that term. We were donating baked goods at the end of every day at every cafe. There was the Panera Cares initiative, in terms of providing access to food for people with dignity and treating people with respect. There’s our work today removing artificial additives and colors. We actually have a “No Jerks” policy. It’s kind of how do we treat people with respect. And there’s this issue about how do we use our size and scale of serving 10 million people weekly to be able to change a broken food system – and how can we be part of the solution vs. the alternative. That sentiment is embedded throughout the company.

What’s impact seen internally and externally with what Panera has done and continues to do?
We’re not one of the largest. But I think people are excited about our ability to create change in the marketplace and be on the leading edge. People are attracted to working in an environment where people are willing to take stands on big issues. There’s a lot of pride in the organization, but there’s also a lot of excitement for where we can go as a brand. And how we can send the right signals to the market, and work with our partners to do the right thing.

What are your suggestions for communicators conveying CSR initiatives – internally and externally?
Whatever you communicate has to be rooted in the reality of the business. You have to understand the issues. Even though you may get pushed in certain areas – “Oh this is the most amazing thing” – you have to really look at it in the context of what is the truth and what’s the right tonality to talk about where you are. With CSR, there’s never an end. We’re always asking, what other things can we be doing to be able to continue to advance these issues.