Environmental, social, and governance concerns are becoming increasingly pressing and attracting the attention of both corporations and consumers. According to PwC, consumers and employees now expect businesses to invest in “making sustainable improvements to the environment and society, not just comply with regulations.” In fact, they found that overwhelming majorities (over 75%) of both consumers and employees are more likely to buy from or work for companies that share their values across the various dimensions of ESG.
As the importance of ESG grows, it plays an even more significant role in companies’ brand reputations. For this reason, it’s vital to strengthen your ESG communications strategy to shape and manage your company narrative.
What is ESG?
ESG (Environmental, Social, and [Corporate] Governance) is a framework for assessing a company’s sustainability and conscientiousness across three categories of interest for “socially responsible investors,” according to the Corporate Finance Institute. While it has been a prominent topic in the world of investing for a while, companies are becoming more concerned with their overall ESG practices and initiatives as a brand. These issues broadly fall under the blanket term “business ethics” – a company’s morals and values, which they may express through their policies, statements, and actions. While social responsibility may not seem as vital or urgent as financial performance to the success of a business, it can make or break a company’s reputation. Most reputation management crises can be classified under one or more of the three dimensions.
Why is ESG Important?
ESG is important because it helps guide companies’ business approaches by considering the values of the next generation of consumers. According to FirstInsight, Generation Z consumers, in particular, are making even more purchase decisions based on sustainable retail practices. SmallBusiness also points out that companies with a strong ethical identity tend to maintain a higher degree of stakeholder satisfaction, in turn leading to greater financial results. Furthermore, ESG best practices help to maintain a good reputation in the public eye, making consumers more likely to purchase from and remain loyal to a company.
Each of ESG’s three components includes a set of criteria that businesses can be evaluated by:
Environmental criteria involve a company’s attitude and actions on climate change issues. The use of renewable energy sources, waste management programs, and environmental protection fall under this category.
For example, there has been increasing pressure on corporations to lower their consumption of single-use plastics. The Plastic Waste Makers Index recently found that twenty companies are the source of more than half of all single-use plastic thrown away globally. Environmental initiatives like the one undertaken by Coca-Cola – which aims to have its packaging comprised of 50% recycled material by 2030 – signal to consumers that a company is taking ownership of its eco-footprint and takes ESG concerns seriously.
Not only can environmentally-conscious practices help businesses save money – complying with environmental regulations avoids costly tariffs – but going green can also boost sales with 78% of people more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly. Overall, businesses can maximize profits and improve their brand identity by appealing to modern, environmentally conscious consumers.
Social criteria refer to a company’s relationships with its various stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors, and local communities. For instance, employer brand has been highlighted as a significant aspect of company reputation, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence showed that companies that were respectful, understanding, and flexible towards employees during this time were more likely to have favorable ESG rankings among consumers.
Social criteria also consider businesses’ role in social issues, with 60% of the U.S. population saying that how a brand responds to racial justice protests would influence whether they buy or boycott the brand in the future. Further, consumers want to see companies take a stance on prominent social issues and back up their views with concrete actions. For example, during the Black Lives Matter movement, the public paid close attention to which corporations were coming out in support of people of color. Not only that, but a study by YPulse found the younger generation of consumers expected brands to follow up on any social media statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement with donations or by changing their business practices.
Corporate governance criteria describe how a corporation is managed from the top-down. In other words, how key decision-makers respond to crises while protecting the rights of their stakeholders.
Governance encompasses financial and accounting transparency, as well as workplace practices. For instance, the MeToo movement shown a light on companies’ corporate governance, with many forced to examine whether they had enforced policies and practices that ensured a safe working environment for women.
Neglecting or failing to follow healthy corporate governance standards can be detrimental to business and can have lasting ramifications not only for a company’s financial performance but also for its brand reputation.
How to Improve Your ESG Communications Strategy
Given how impactful implementing an ESG strategy can be on business performance, it will continue to play an important role in public relations for years to come.
PR teams must effectively communicate their company’s ESG goals and the actions they’re taking to achieve them. By setting and publicizing targets, businesses allow their employees and the public to hold them accountable to their goals, garnering more trust in the process.
Here are a few ways to improve your ESG communications strategy:
Know Your Audience
Understanding the values of your audience is a vital step in strengthening your ESG strategy. By examining survey and polling data, you can assess which elements of ESG are most important to your target audience. This will make it easier to cater your ESG communications approach to each demographic. Market research allows you to prioritize coverage of the issues your target audience cares about most, whether that’s your company’s contribution to the racial justice movement or efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. You should also evaluate the best way to reach each demographic. For instance, regularly updating social media platforms may be a great tool to engage younger consumers in your socially responsible accomplishments. Likewise, a monthly newsletter in the inboxes of employees can be a fantastic way to keep them involved.
Define Your Narrative
Understanding your purpose as a company and what you can contribute to society is inextricably linked to ESG performance. Set clear and achievable goals and ensure that you have internal buy-in. In doing so, you are setting the standard for a united ESG strategy with the support of your stakeholders. The next step is to communicate those goals to relevant stakeholders through a cohesive narrative. A memorable ESG mission statement is a simple but effective way to get a message across. A perfect example is Starbucks’s sustainability initiative, Shared Planet, which they describe as a “commitment to do business in ways that are good for people and the planet.”
Promote your company’s ESG goals by sharing success stories, converting ESG data and outcomes into infographics, publishing employee testimonials, and writing press releases. Develop strategies for getting your company’s ESG experts cited on key topics and share relevant content with publications to increase your company’s visibility. Decide what your key messages are and make sure they are being heard.
Evaluate Your Strategy
As you continue to spread your chosen ESG narrative, it’s essential to track earned media coverage and note which communications efforts are most effective. Incorporating media monitoring and analytics will put the efficacy of your ESG communications strategy to the test. By understanding key message penetration and sentiment around your ESG initiatives, you can adjust your communications strategy accordingly. You can also glean insights from your industry and competitors’ earned media coverage. By gauging what is or isn’t working for them and your shared audience, you can carve out your unique brand voice. Measuring different forms of engagement, such as social sharing, can also be a very useful tool in determining the success of your strategy. After all, what use is a fantastic press release showcasing your ESG initiatives if nobody reads it? Media monitoring can gauge whether the right messages are reaching the right people.
Build a Better Strategy
A strong ESG communications strategy is essential to PR teams’ ability to manage their company reputation. With an in-depth analysis of your company’s earned media coverage, your team can craft campaigns in line with your stakeholder’s values as they evolve. Understanding how your company and your key competitors are performing on the various dimensions of ESG will provide you with a clear path towards achieving your communications goals. The ability to accurately discern sentiment, context, and nuance has never been more relevant, which is why PublicRelay’s human-AI hybrid approach to media monitoring is even better for analyzing ESG topics than a purely automated tool. Click here to learn more now!