While CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) endures as a very real and important aspect of brand marketing and communications, more leaders of these functions are finding themselves with a new strategic orientation towards ESG. In fact, the percentage of CEO’s selecting Social Responsibility/ESG as one of their top five priorities doubled from 2020 to 2021 (2021 Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey). ESG stands for Environment, Society and Governance, and refers to standardized frameworks used by companies to measure their risk across these three areas. Based on recent inquiries, ESG is quickly surpassing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) as the communications “platform” of choice, across both public and private companies that align to both business and consumer stakeholders. While business partners in audit and legal may be engaged on the topic first, following are three considerations for marketers and communicators for building ESG communications.
Tell the ESG story in a way consistent with the Brand and Narrative
The area most clients have questions about is how to build a cohesive story based on ESG metrics that capture data from across the business. Our advice here is that the optimal approach to authentically communicating about ESG/sustainability is when it is truly integrated with the corporate narrative and overarching strategic objectives. This gives focus to the communications, and also brings the sustainability story to life by way of what the company is doing anyway. That said, maturity of ESG communications plays a role. Not every organization will be at a point in their sustainability journey for the storytelling and language to feel “natural.” But the more sustainability is integrated into simply the way the business is run – which is one of the major differences between ESG and CSR, which serves as more ancillary to the organization – the more that authenticity will shine through.
Communicate to a broad range of audiences
While investors are the most obvious audience group to target with ESG communications, multiple stakeholders are also observing and paying attention. From consumers to potential recruits and current employees, audience expectations are high for organizations to engage across ESG-related issues and initiatives. Employees have surfaced in discussions as one of the most challenging and highest-priority audiences to communicate to, mostly because their understanding of the organization’s commitment to ESG is often overlooked yet critical. Educating internally can be pivotal in aligning employees to ESG or sustainability objectives that must be met across business functions. Employee knowledge is also crucial to engaging with multiple unique audience groups who may understand the components of E, S and G differently (think suppliers vs. human resources, for example). Finally, when communicating to non-employee audiences, the corporate sustainability or communications team cannot be the only voices of sustainability in the company. It’s important to reinforce key messages with training, education and self-service sustainability tools so that employees can carry the message through with confidence to customers, investors and other interested parties.
Leverage the enterprise
One of the questions I hear most frequently is about where ESG is housed and how it aligns to senior leadership. And there’s one answer I can provide with certainty: it’s different across every organization and really depends on commitment to ESG, maturity of the program, reputation priorities, and capabilities and interests across senior leaders. ESG is new enough that it falls into a range of org structures and related priorities. Some communications leaders sit on a sustainability team that reports to a Chief Sustainability Officer who reports to legal; other communications leaders align to an EVP with global responsibility for government and sustainability, who reports to the CEO. Still others are picking up the ESG and sustainability work and leading progress on strategic objectives. Business partners are outside of the organization as well; some organizations have a strategy lead that assembles a team to liaise with an agency that drives the ESG communication plan. Others assemble a steering group with representatives from different business units.
One thing is certain though: ESG provides the vehicle for the organization to take sustainability strategically seriously. While the enterprise sets the framework, it comes to life in the different business units. This essentially makes ESG and sustainability everyone’s responsibility.