Tackling commitment fatigue in ESG communications

Every day it seems another business announces a new purpose-related strategy, set of commitments and targets; underpinned with a roadmap to achieving them. Having a concrete set of time bound goals is a necessary underpinning for any sustainability, corporate responsibility or diversity and inclusion communications strategy — especially given the increased scrutiny of businesses. However, it is also increasingly difficult to earn attention through this alone in a crowded space.

By Wendy Mitchell

It has been a bumper year for environment, social, and governance (ESG) considerations, where expectations on the environmental and social impact of business have never been higher. Consumers and corporate stakeholders are also savvier than ever and can see through purpose chatter to recognise those businesses which are genuinely committed to ESG in their operations and communities, with a heightened awareness of ‘greenwashing’ or ‘wokewashing’.

Within this context, ESG is a fast-evolving landscape, and companies will be quickly outpaced if they try to “compete” on pledges alone (unless your commitments genuinely are world first, or industry leading). In addition, companies increasingly need to create an ongoing relationship with audiences — beyond a one off ‘hit’ or announcement. That means genuine interaction with sustainability stakeholders and consumers, authenticity in the way brands communicate, and honesty about bumps in the road.

So what can businesses do to continue to reach their audiences with their ESG story, and tackle “commitment fatigue”?

Transparency and frequency of communicating, done in the right way, will demonstrate a longer-term view and commitment…Set intention, show leadership, and explain the journey you are on…It is about the destination,
but also about the journey.

Don’t fake it

If your ESG strategy is a one-off set of commitments, then your communications strategy will inevitably follow that lead. It seems obvious, but your ESG strategy can’t be one of several competing priorities in communications. It must be awarded the significance it deserves, feel genuinely resonant with core business operations, and align with commercial strategy and purpose. Think about your core business and how you naturally intersect with your consumers, society, environment. Consumers and your other audiences can now sniff out inauthenticity and inconsistency from a mile away. You must apply the authenticity test to everything you’re doing and genuinely integrate your purpose, values and ESG priorities into how you operate.

Find a space

ESG strategies tend to be complex and multi-faceted, and rightly so. Your strategy needs to be watertight and comprehensive. But demonstrating your commitments doesn’t require you to say everything. Don’t be afraid to “go narrow” and carve out a genuine space in the debate using a campaign which can act as a demonstrator of your wider commitments. Understand the issues most material to your business and where you have a genuine opportunity to lead and stand apart.

Companies that have successfully identified a specific real-life insight or a problem that needs fixing and where they have something unique to offer have been able to drive better engagement than those who have taken on the world (and the planet). “Sustainability” is a big, catch-all term and ESG is a broad topic that has become shorthand for commitments across a lot of factors. Redefine these terms: think about how you could create or insert yourself into a smaller thought-provoking conversation, where you can genuinely add value.

Be creative and provocative

We’ve lived through a wildly turbulent 18 months where there have been big cultural shifts, public discord and political debate about environment, equities and cultural norms. ESG is increasingly a challenging, contested space where debate is welcome and expected. Businesses are inclined to exercise caution in their communications because of the increased scrutiny on this area, but achieving genuine engagement requires a bolder approach. Once you’ve applied the authenticity test, you are much freer (within reason, and a common-sense risk framework) to challenge something in society, be unexpected, innovate and spark debate (and maybe even create a few noises off along the way).

Must show, don’t tell

ESG concepts and sustainability innovations can be difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to make “real” for consumers or your end audience. The organizations that have done well at building a leadership voice are ones which show what they’re trying to achieve — making it easy to understand and tangible. Don’t just rely on commentary. Invest in content that will support you to bring your message and campaign to life. To be engaging on this topic, especially on social media, it is a must to have a proper content strategy and utilise video, infographics and other digital assets in a way which is tailored to your different audiences. Don’t be afraid to use content like this to create a dialogue and interact with your audiences on social — this is the prevailing direction of travel.

Talk about the journey

Measurement and transparency on ESG progress is now industry standard, not a nice to have. Consumers and stakeholders, including journalists and investors, have an expectation to be updated on how things are going one, two, and five years after your press release — and Government regulation on disclosure is also moving fast. Many of the collective goals that Governments set for sustainable development are long-term and ambitious, with multiple parties each playing a part in collaborative solutions. However, stakeholders need to understand incremental progress against those goals; so it is helpful for companies to prove impact at each phase of the process.

Transparency and frequency of communicating, done in the right way, will demonstrate a longer-term view and commitment. Go beyond your targets, seek to build ongoing dialogue and a relationship with your key audiences, and be part of a wider solution-focused conversation.

There is now a more sophisticated audience out there which can engage with the different stages and challenges of achieving your goals, for example, decarbonisation or a diversity and inclusion strategy. Set intention, show leadership, and explain the journey you are on — rather than waiting until it’s been achieved (or not!). It is about the destination, but also about the journey.

Wendy Mitchell

Author

Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, Weber Shandwick London

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