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The ESG Review: Why are so many ESG images so crap?

Credit: Image from ‘Sunday: A Portrait of 21st Century England’ Copyright Matt Writtle 2023

In local journalism, potholes are the gift that keeps on giving. The UK’s roads are full of them, and newspaper stories about them always stir emotions.

This week, a pothole story made national headlines, but it was a picture that did the talking. The image to tell the tale of ‘Britain’s deepest pothole’ finally being filled was of a 5ft 6ins man standing in what had become a 5ft deep hole - as this brilliant photo in The Times vividly depicted. The man standing in the hole even did it as a one-man lobbying campaign, so the image persuaded the local council to repair it.

It made me think - why is a gas engineer in east London able to come up with a good idea for a photo that drives change and headlines when so many companies struggle to produce or source any really compelling images that visualise their ESG achievements and commitments?

My own experience is a case in point here. I’ve had many conversations recently about what kind of image is needed for the cover of an ESG-related document, to accompany a story or even to illustrate a concept. But too often, those conversations are at the end of the process, after every word has been poured over, rather than asking the fundamental question from the outset: what do we want to communicate, and how can we best use words and images to do that?

Lots of stories can be challenging to tell in photos - well, more specifically, it can be difficult to find a photo to accompany or embody the story once you’ve written the words. Just ask anyone who has worked in the technology sector for a while.

And to be fair, ESG covers such a vast spectrum that expecting to be able to lean on photography or imagery to encapsulate it all will always be futile. It would be a little like searching for images of ‘business’ to support a commercial announcement only to be disappointed at offers of stock images of people milling around offices in forced poses.

I put this to a couple of experts. Firstly, Scott Shillum has spent 30+ years (sorry Scott..) giving his advice on how to better use pictures to tell corporate stories. He was on picture desk at The European and then Sunday Business (remember them?) before setting up a photo and video content agency VisMedia, which he later merged into reporting, brand and employee comms specialist Emperor.

In his view, corporate communicators tend to end up scratching around for supportive photography because they either try to do too much or don’t consider visual communication from the outset.

“We revert to the obvious 'green' cliche because capturing the complex and nuanced nature of ESG issues in a single image is nigh on impossible,” he said.

“ESG needs to be broken down into its constituent parts. Ideally, a company should commission its own image bank that represents its own efforts and focus on the individual elements of the narrative. This can be a relatively significant investment initially, but if done correctly, there would be a unique image bank that is on-brand and can be utilised across multiple channels for a long time.

“The creation of new content should be an iterative process. Focus on some key areas of your ESG strategy and commit to building on that over time. Plan for a new photography shoot once every six months and map it into the activity timeline in the content calendar. You would quickly build up a unique library that tells your story how you want it to be told,” he said.

Photographer Matt Writtle, who shoots for the Evening Standard and several nationals alongside corporate and broader photographic work, had a similar take on the challenge.

“The power of photography can transform an average story and make it into a must read piece,” he said. ““Most of the principles of getting good shots to illustrate an ESG story are the same as for any corporate story. Figure out what you want to communicate, work with a photographer on what the visual element needs to add to the overall story, then develop ideas for how best to capture that.

“Sometimes, the photo can even be the story, and be a better way of communicating a single aspect of a project or initiative, for example where something is a huge facility or a small technological advance is making an enormous difference.

But he added: “What’s missing seems to be the creative bridge between photographers and corporate communicators who mostly deal with words. The more they can work together from the outset on ideas, or even look to develop their own set of ESG stock photos, the better position they should be to tell their own stories rather than having to resort to using bland, standard images.”

With pressure continuing to increase on businesses to not just demonstrate the value of their ESG commitments, but continue to convince all stakeholders that such commitments are the right strategic move long-term, surely there is clear value in creating better photography to help do so?

And with regulators continuing to address greenwashing concerns by restricting the inappropriate or inaccurate use of certain words, surely images can both be a powerful asset for storytelling and help to demonstrate commitments - even certain facts - in ways that words alone cannot?

Until then, next time you wince while selecting a green shoot in a pot, blocks with E/S/G on them on an abstract take on a wind turbine, perhaps stop to ask whether we could all be doing this a little better. Without falling foul of any potholes along the way.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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