The understanding of what environmental, social and governance (ESG) is and looks like varies between almost every business, industry and sector. When a business is preparing to debut an ESG strategy, it can be challenging to know where to begin as a communicator. It’s important to understand what to implement or how to integrate this into communications and culture.
As a communicator who has worked in the ESG space across a few industries, I often see this as a new topic for many. In recent years, ESG has shown that it can outperform the market, reduce risk and align with ethics-led investing. Here are some tips and tricks if you’re wondering where to start with ESG in communications.
First off, are we certain that ESG is really that important?
- A 2022 survey of business journalists from Ipsos indicates that the higher companies are rated on their ESG credentials, the better their overall reputation. As communications professionals, this is significant to our efforts.
- A 2022 report by Deloitte highlighted a sharp increase in focus around sustainability for consumers and investors alike. Overall, highlighting ESG efforts can promote trust within an organization.
- A survey from PwC found that 92% of business executives agreed that businesses with commitments to ESG policies will outlast competitors without.
- While there’s been discussion of whether ESG is fading as a priority, we know that it’s typical in economic downturns for businesses to temporarily focus inwards, which is also confirmed by a recent report from Gartner. For example, we know that after a tricky economic year with COVID-19, the PwC’s Consumer Intelligence Series showed that investment in ESG actually doubled after 2020.
Where to start?
1. Blend Your Internal Strengths Where Possible
ESG isn’t strictly for the investor relations and communications teams. From my experience, strong ESG communication involves a blend of brains. This can vary, though an example could be any mix of strategy, operations, finance, investor relations, governance, corporate communications, creative and public relations experts. The more perspectives at the table, the more informed the storytelling becomes, while ensuring everyone internally is on the same page.
It can also be important to determine role clarity and internal transparency, especially between investor relations and the storytellers at the table, to ensure a fully informed engagement plan. For example, investor relations or governance teams may own the sustainability or ESG elements of a website or be directly involved in metrics and reporting, while the communications team may own the communications plan itself and require crucial information to keep things moving. It’s likely that several tactics of an ESG communications plan will involve action owners and stakeholders in and out of the communications team.
2. Keep Change Management in Mind
With more emphasis on the organizational side of change, change management is an important perspective to incorporate into communications planning. Communicating the introduction, reporting and sustainment of ESG to employees is imperative to ensure all parties are along for the ride. Ideally, communicators can focus time on empowering leaders to make employees aware of the roles they play throughout the journey, while reinforcing these messages internally to ensure this is sustained and implemented consistently. Time should also be allocated to educate C-suite leadership in how to introduce ESG internally and externally, noting how this will propel the organization forward, and help them anticipate questions or resistance that can be addressed verbally.
Keep in mind that as ESG milestones are achieved, there will be changes and additions implemented to be shared proactively for internal and external stakeholders. Conveying ESG to employees has value outside of role clarity and action, as recent data suggests that employees are more satisfied and stay longer with employers that have higher ESG ratings.
3. Convey the ‘Why’ and Simplify How to Get It
A strong ESG strategy at its core will clearly show purpose in alignment with the business’ mission and values. Developing a strong communications and stakeholder relations plan around this will help all relevant audiences stay informed and aligned on what will take place to improve ESG performance. Communicating the significance of this with organizational values, such as where the business expects to make measurable impact and the “why” behind these changes, will support awareness and involvement.
Consider hosting all ESG reports, news releases, media coverage, blog posts and video content within one clearly identified website section. ESG-related social media updates are also recommended and can usually point to the website section which stakeholders can access easily as the source of truth.
4. Invest in the Narrative
When introducing ESG into the organization as a new priority, taking the audience on this journey through an interactive, exciting and passionate storytelling experience will prove impactful. Relying only on the essentials, such as an annual report, is a missed opportunity to own the narrative and engage audiences effectively.
Stakeholders need to understand ESG’s position in enhancing business strategy, so the narrative you build must articulate what ESG means, what is going to change, and why it is important. Through an era where ESG impact is becoming more commonly communicated, it’s vital to have a narrative that is unique, transparent and unites the organizational goals with this new way forward. It should answer questions like “Where do we want to go?” and “How will we get there?”
5. Transparency All the Way
With a business priority focused on making positive, measurable changes across communities and ecosystems, communicating transparently about all efforts is significant. While much of the transparent intention is to give opportunities for stakeholder audiences to engage, another element is ensuring efforts are portrayed accurately. For example, overstating sustainability impact is now common enough that it has a name: greenwashing.
Another example would be how early ESG adopter Google has seen a lot of success in sustainability, amidst public criticism around diversity and inclusion. The only thing worse than not being an active participant in the ESG space is participating and exaggerating what has been accomplished, leading to drastic impact on brand trust and public relations. ESG communications should focus on future and accomplished goals, while identifying openly and accountably what has not yet come to fruition or gone as planned. This indicates earnest commitment to achieving the desired impact and trust that momentum is moving in the right direction.
Committing to ESG for the Long-Term
Knowing where to start with ESG in communications can be overwhelming, but there are many consultants and agencies that can provide support. One of the most important pieces is ensuring an organization is committed, accountable and avoiding performative displays that will be seen through by audiences and investors. ESG is less of a campaign and more of an iterative component of brand identity that will expand and adapt with time as new causes, current events and metrics come into play.
Paige Strand is a communications leader with experience across investor relations, financial technology, hotel, real estate, construction, restaurant, entertainment, automotive and publishing industries in Vancouver, BC. Listed on The Peak’s “Emerging Leaders of 2022” list, she is a regular speaker at communications events and webinars. Renowned and recruited for expertise in supporting organizations through major growth transitions and intense change, Strand completed her Prosci Change Management certification to further exercise leadership in both communications and change environments. Strand is the director of marketing and communications at irlabs, a dynamic investor relations firm. She is a writer, mentor, beekeeper, board member for IABC’s British Columbia chapter and sits on the Economic Development Advisory Committee for the City of New Westminster. Connect with Strand on LinkedIn.