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ESG communications: Getting ahead of those challenges

From greenwashing to meaningful measurement, these are what communications leaders need to brace themselves for.

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are no longer treated as an afterthought by companies. The growing momentum behind the ESG movement has brought sharp focus on how companies integrate environmental, social and governance strategies into their business and culture.

Drawing on CARMA’s media data, the volume of coverage around ESG has been staggering. In the last six months of 2021, there were over 80,000 media reports mentioning ESG related issues, with an average of 528 articles per day in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The peak of this coverage was the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in October-November 2021. While there was a slight drop off in media attention from that point, it remains a major focus for PR and Communications teams who are tasked with designing and executing the communications strategy as companies make pledges, introduce and implement ESG strategies.

Fighting the pervasive greenwashing label

With businesses under stringent scrutiny of the media and public, one of the key questions now confronting companies executives: how to avoid the greenwashing label?

In an recent interview on MONEY FM 89.3, a Singapore business radio station, CARMA’s Head of Insights for Asia, Khali Sakkas said that a common media reaction and social media reaction to brands who connect themselves with sustainability issues will be to quickly highlight any greenwashing that is occurring and anything that lacks transparency, effectiveness and authenticity. This is the biggest challenge for PR and communication professionals in Asia.

“It is certainly going to be more meaningful and it is certainly going to be more challenging. The “quick wins” are long gone and it is time to deliver. From a PR perspective, it will most likely fall into a predictable pattern. Company announces initiatives, sceptical audiences react, stakeholders and experts criticise initiatives for either greenwashing or not going further enough or fast enough.”

For example, the recent announcement by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Formula 1 race organiser Singapore GP that a sustainability audit will be undertaken to help guide the development of their green initiatives over a period of 7 years received mixed reactions from the experts and media. While the sustainability audit and green initiatives are a step in the right direction, it was met with doubts on whether the efforts would be enough to reduce the carbon footprint, and that programmes should go further and faster.

The goal here for PR is to provide authentic communication that helps to manage expectation and finds the right balance between aspiration and impact,” commented Khali.

2021 was the year of focus and the year of the promise and it looks like 2022 will be the year where we focus on whether those promises are kept. It will be the year where companies will be challenged to be transparent about their progress towards net-zero emissions pledges and other pledges they have made.

Your employees as one of the most important stakeholder groups

Just as ESG is an inextricable part of how we do business, it is now also critical to employee engagement. The way our employees and stakeholders view our ESG efforts is having a significant impact on your reputation overall. The media have traditionally been the key source of holding organisations accountable for the promises they make, but there has been a seismic shift with employee engagement in the last two years. 

Study has shown that ESG performance will become increasingly important to attracting and retaining talent. By 2029, the Millennial and Gen Z generations will make up 72 percent of the world’s workforce. These generations place greater importance on environmental and social concerns than their predecessors do – and will expect more from employers on these issues. Your employees are going to be the key stakeholder group who will track whether you “walk the walk” and if you don’t – we’ll see talent “walk out the door” or not walk in to start with.

Anticipating ESG communications challenges

Media intelligence helps organisations and governments prioritise and strategise. Social listening often also gives us an early warning signal to a possible crisis and serves as the ultimate pulse check and trend detector. “We use it to track the “promise deliver divide” because if companies are not walking the walk – we will hear about it on social media,” said Khali.

Deep dive media analysis reports provide you with the full picture of your media landscape, your stakeholders and how the issues are treated by the media. They delve into the granular reactions and views so that you can inform your future strategy. They help to mitigate negative attention by informing our clients of their key battles, risks and opportunities.

In anticipating such challenges, Khali highlighted 2 key moments that communications professionals need to plan for in their organisations’ ESG journey. 

  • The release of your company’s first audit will need to be a very strategic planning exercise from the PR perspective. It will be a pivotal moment where C-suites and stakeholders will be reacting to this audit in the media. 
  • When commitments fall short or have not gone fast enough, having a message to explain that is extremely critical in helping to shape the narrative.

There will be serious backlash for companies that don’t deliver on their promises and we will continue to see allegations of greenwashing. Media intelligence helps to keep companies informed of recent case studies and trends in greenwashing policy and perception.

Measuring meaningfully to stay accountable

Measuring share of voice against industry peers and competitors has been a common metric in media analysis for over 20 years, but it is no longer enough given the breadth and depth of the issues PR and communications teams are grappling with now. What we are seeing is a move towards measuring more specific aspects of ESG as organisations realise the need to hold themselves accountable. 

Media intelligence helps to measure the outcomes and impact of ESG efforts. This is not only the impact of your communications efforts but the ultimate impact of our sustainability or social initiatives. This involves multiple data points and integrated research techniques. Only by investing in a robust measurement programme can companies show the impact of their efforts and have a rich pool of insight to improve over time.

Speak with one of our experienced consultants about your media monitoring and communications evaluation today.