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The ESG Review: The fallacy of ESG being merely a “PR exercise”

Over the past few months, many of the weekly updates here have looked at severe notes of caution issued over overheated ESG investing, greenwashing and whether the whole notion of frameworks for sustainable change is fit for purpose.

This week saw another piece appear that’s intended to be an acute reality check - only this time the acronym PR was firmly in the headline.

The FT opinion article was courtesy of former business journalist and PR Stefan Stern, known for telling it how he sees it.

His piece this week was set out as a clear reality check on the fallacy of ESG being merely a “PR exercise” rather than a structured approach to sustaining value in the interests of all stakeholders.

It covered companies hiring for communications positions that demand candidates with deep expertise in a broad array of aspects of sustainable change.

It covered a brief history of three letter acronyms in business that bring froth and fervour, but deliver little beyond faddish short-term action.

And it covered the prospect of contradictory action by companies caught between shareholder and broader stakeholder interests, plus the enormous challenge of genuinely engaging employees with change programmes.

A reality check on multiple ESG fronts, then. And ending with the conclusion that “the threat of public embarrassment should be enough to encourage most business leaders to make better choices.”

Indeed, and the point about being embarrassed to admit a business’s activity to friends and family is well-made too. No business, brand or leader wants to be left red-faced in public or in private.

For those who work in PR, the point of this piece is that ESG represents both an opportunity for communications to be integral to business change and value creation, and a threat if the mandate is simply to conduct one-dimension reputation management - or, cynically, embarrassment management - without genuine transformation in collective interests. In other words, do the right things for the right reasons, once those right reasons have been agreed and made clear.

Communications people can add direct value to the business by being the ‘eyes and ears on the outside’, to help guide it reputationally in its actions, words and pictures. But if the briefs are unrealistic or come down to polishing that-which-should-not-be-polished, we’re asking for trouble.

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

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