Shoulder to Shoulder: ESG and the PR Professional

With the help from PR professionals, businesses can no longer treat ESG as a token corporate social responsibility programme.

Jun 01, 2022 | By Marina Mathews
Marina Mathews, CEO MM Communications
Marina Mathews, Founder and CEO of MM Communications. Image: MM Communications

We are now witnessing a marked upswing in discourse around sustainability from all over the globe. The rampage of the pandemic, global socio-political uncertainty, together with growing unease over the exponential degradation of the environment, have resulted in increasing numbers of people around the world paying close attention to societal and sustainability related issues. This concern stems not just from activists who want to preserve the environment, but also from the public, think tanks, governments, business leaders, and investors. Consequently, we are seeing more and more pressure piled on corporations to be held accountable for their role in contributing to environmental and societal impact.

As a result, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors have become key metrics for these stakeholders in gauging corporate social accountability, and for CEOs in benchmarking and measuring their organisations’ success in meeting ESG targets — and communicating these achievements to internal and external audiences. In other words, it is no longer sufficient for a company to do well financially, it must also contribute to societal and environmental good.

Consequently, a company’s ESG commitment is tightly linked to its reputation, and public relations and communications therefore have a vital role to play in helping organisations ensure they clearly communicate ESG successes to the appropriate audiences. Because an ESG strategy involves multiple factors, ranging from governance to operations, acquisitions, supply chains, investments, to products and services offered, it is important that PR professionals are brought into the conversation early. That way, they can help to determine and prioritise key stakeholders, identify risks, and develop narratives that establish a company’s ESG vision and commitment to sustainability and social responsibility.

Marina Mathews, CEO MM Communications
Image: MM Communications

Furthermore, companies engaging on an ESG roadmap must consider both internal and external audiences. Communications plays a key role in ensuring that employees buy into the sustainability message and do their part to reduce consumption in each of the areas of ESG, for example in reducing energy and material usage, and better waste management. Increasingly today, employees themselves are concerned with environmental issues, so communicating what the company is doing to address these issues would foster a sense of pride and commitment and contribute to enhanced staff well-being. Launching initiatives such as community volunteer programs would also serve to get staff engaged with ESG-related issues and are a powerful way to demonstrate a company’s pledge to help create a more sustainable world.

Perhaps the most important notion PR professionals should impress is that building an ESG PR strategy is not a short-term goal that can be achieved within a matter of weeks or months but is an ongoing journey. Because ESG touches on a myriad of areas, it is important that as PR professionals we help businesses to prioritise the most important external stakeholders and develop a plan of action to engage them. Whether these external stakeholders are investors, potential investors, industry bodies or regulators, it is crucial for companies to develop narratives that highlight their relevance to the discourse around ESG, while of course not neglecting its standing as a profitable and financially successful entity.

One way companies can communicate their unique ESG narrative is by engaging an effective spokesperson. Given the importance of ESG, this is a role that should be borne by the CEO, or by a senior executive. As PR professionals, we must prepare and equip this spokesperson with the correct stories, supported by facts and accomplishments, so that the spokesperson can clearly communicate and substantiate the company’s ESG efforts, and thus gain the confidence of internal and external stakeholders.

Marina Mathews, CEO MM Communications
Image: MM Communications

At the same time, we must seize every opportunity to reach out and grab media coverage — after all, it is our task to ensure that the companies we work with are seen as leaders in their field, and now also as leaders in ESG.

The ESG debate is gathering strength and will become de rigueur for all businesses. Already, top asset management funds such as Blackrock and Vanguard have signed on to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment and are making investment decisions based on ESG considerations. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) — the country’s central bank — is now mandating climate-related financial disclosures for financial services institutions (FSI), the first country in Asia to do so. More and more countries will follow this lead.

What this means is that companies must take ESG seriously. This is an all-encompassing development that is here to stay, and businesses cannot treat ESG as a token corporate social responsibility program thrown out just to give the impression that it has a conscience or engage in shallow greenwashing. ESG is something that requires careful planning and sustained effort. PR has a vital role to play, and the sooner we are brought to the table, the more we can contribute to making a company’s ESG journey a success.

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