The ESG Review: Time for ESG and communications to face the music

It was meant to be a reality check, and did not disappoint.

This week’s PRmoment event on the contribution of comms to ESG was likely to see some cold, hard truths set out, given the criticism, political sniping and broad backlash that its purported value has faced this year.

But while there was clear consensus from speakers that ESG as-we-knew-it is going to have to change profoundly to deliver long-term, positive change, there was also room for optimism that ESG’s current facing of its own music would drive positive outcomes in the long-term, despite being battered and bruised today.

ESG Foundation founder Clive Booth set the scene in outlining how many companies had adopted a specific, personalised approach to ESG reports in particular, to focus content on their most important stakeholders and achievements rather than taking a broader brush.

In a panel discussion, Haw-Yan Man, strategic communications lead for the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDP) Impact, said that despite ESG’s troubles, the need for commitment to Sustainable Development Goals, and for social action to help sustain environmental change was even more paramount. Meanwhile, Lenovo’s Monica Hauser Wolff, director of Corporate ESG Communications and Global Philanthropy, echoed the requirement for companies to adopt the most important standards, stick to their guns in delivering against commitments and be science-based to give that action credibility.

Jeremy Cohen, partner at Blurred, described it as a “buckle-up” time for communicators, with empty words and promises having been largely responsible for ESG’s current malaise rather than a failing in the approach to ESG investing or goal-setting.

But he remained hopeful that communications can help to drive ESG - or whatever it involves into - success in the future, albeit after some drastic correction. He noted Chartered Institute of Marketing survey data that 63 per cent of people in the UK were sceptical about ESG claims, the same number also wanted to hear more from organisations about their goals and achievements.

And on greenwashing, he made a case for the law presiding, with greenwashing infringements likely to draw prosecutions that would serve as a lesson to all.

Their outlooks chimed with much of what I shared around the big issues facing ESG and related communications at the moment: regulation, the need to explain clearly and accurately, the need to provide evidence of value of leadership and the value of maintaining political intelligence at a time of polarisation and constant pot-shotting.

My take: yes buckle up, but in the face of such headwinds, it’s a time for communicators to hold their nerve, as ESG dusts itself down and hopefully rebuilds on a firm, measurable and clinical footing.

It’s a hopeful note that chimed with a piece in Politico this week about resistance to right wing critics in the US, Bloomberg’s take on why EU regulation is already starting to bite in the investment world, but for long-term gain, and Fortune’s reminder that younger people want to work for, and shop from, purposeful firms.

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

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