The Sustainability Series – Communicating ESG to the media

Success in the age of greenwashing: Communicatingesg media
ESG to the media

by Anna Bailey, Associate

Reporting pressures on journalists are at an all-time high – but it would be a mistake to think that limited time equates to limited media scrutiny. Any business hoping to step into the fray by amplifying their ESG strategies must be aware that an announcement does not complete the job, rather it sets out an agenda for future scrutiny…

The communication battles must be fought from the very beginning of an ESG strategy. Waiting until the work is done is a mistake.

Businesses should stay ahead of the game, communicating their ambitions and why they matter from the get-go – and accepting it won’t be an easy ride.

ESG stories are increasingly mainstream

Like all other areas of business and investing, the press has cottoned onto the rapidly increasing dominance of ESG in the economic and political landscape. This is a trend that was already long in the making, but COVID-19 changed the game.

Now, more than ever, the responsibility taken by companies to protect health, jobs and lives is a matter at the very heart of public interest. Readers are heavily exposed to and deeply involved in public philanthropy, thanksgiving to key workers, and celebrating the feats of extraordinary, ordinary people. Reputations are made and lost on the minutiae of doing the right thing. Further still, the global standstill has given decision makers the thinking space to challenge issues of sustainability, governance and social injustice.

Outlets are reacting by hiring specialist industry reporters with a deep understanding of the issues at play.

Substance or headline-chasing?

An expanded pool of interested reporters who understandesg media

ESG, is helpful. But it also ramps up the responsibility on businesses to get it right.

These writers understand the difference between bandwagon-jumping and real substance, and will spot any failure to embed your values at the heart of your business. Peaking interest has led to a flood of greenwashing stories and “woolly” ESG responses, as reported recently by FTAdviser, and empty ESG press releases are flooding journalists’ inboxes.

Treating ESG as a standalone story smacks of PR – it must be woven into the corporate narrative consistently and honestly. That means that all spokespeople, including C-Suite, IR and Corporate Comms, need to understand how to articulate ESG as part of the broader business.

Getting ahead of crises

Such is the pervasiveness of puff-pieces that stories about inflated ESG credentials are often more valuable than failures to implement them in the first place.

Take Nike, which launched a bold advertising campaign in 2018 featuring American football star Colin Kaepernick, a pioneer in taking the knee during the US national anthem. These positive gestures were, however, badly undermined by Nike’s disappointing lack of diversity at board level. Reporters pointed out that in 2019, less than 10% of its 300-plus vice-presidents worldwide were black.

What you say must be properly backed up by your strategy, but that doesn’t mean waiting until you have concrete results, such as a fully diverse board. Announcing an ESG journey, identifying and taking ownership of the areas for improvement alongside the work needed to get there, will ensure you can talk ambitiously and authentically ahead of legitimate scrutiny.

The impact of social media on reporting

Social media’s role in generating ESG stories is a significantesg media

sea change in the reporting landscape. Businesses’ failings and inconsistencies used to be channelled to public consciousness via mainstream reporting. Not so in the TikTok age.

Social media dialogue and activism is often the story. Consumers can detect authenticity and often stimulate reporting by media platforms themselves. ESG outreach campaigns, particularly for consumer-facing brands, can no longer prioritise traditional media in isolation. A successful strategy understands how to leverage both.

Communicating with a wider range of stakeholders will require an equally wide range of ambassadors and strategic partners. Suppliers, customers, employees and NGOs are the voices that will cut through the corporate jargon to demonstrate real commitment.

The Dos and Don’ts

With that in mind, successful and strategic ESG outreach strategies are critical – more so than ever. Here, then, are DRD’s key tips to building one:

  1. Do play the long game. Not everyone will be a believer. Lead from the front and accept that instant plaudits won’t be forthcoming. Over time, the results will speak for themselves.
  2. Don’t manipulate the figures. Journalists can immediately detect, for example, an attempt to hide diversity statistics at the top by focusing on the overall picture. Own your shortcomings from the beginning as a central element to your ESG strategy.
  3. Don’t avoid amplification entirely. ESG is critical to growth, investment and reputation, but only if it is communicated properly.
How DRD can help

We help our clients understand and articulate their impact in the world, analyse their ESG risks and opportunities, engage their stakeholders, develop strategy and tell their ESG stories. DRD has a dedicated ESG team with deep experience advising clients on ESG issues in both in senior in-house and advisory roles. For a conversation about how DRD might be able to assist please contact sustainability@drdpartnership.com.