Keeping it real: why authenticity is the key to effective ESG content
From politicians to estate agents, we can all think of a cringeworthy example of everyday hyperbole and truth-stretching. It makes us doubt the credibility of the speaker and undermines their overall message.
And of course it’s no different in the corporate world, where, despite brands’ efforts to sound authentic, there are plenty of examples of statements that are creative with the truth or sound hollow. At best, communications like these are unconvincing; at worst, they can shatter a brand’s reputation, or lead to accusations of ‘greenwashing’.
And if there is one area that is ripe with potential for these clangers it’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. As we all know, it’s one of the most challenging and wide-ranging areas for communications professionals to support leaders on.
Here are some key ways to make sure your ESG comms are authentic:
Opt for updates
Your brand’s ESG story is an ongoing journey rather than a fixed destination – and the goal posts are likely to keep moving. If your company is only at the early stages of its ESG commitments, then it’s fine to say so.
Many projects – like IKEA’s push towards only using recyclable and renewable materials – will be a slow burn. So, it’s totally acceptable to provide regular updates rather than the end result.
Include proof points
And when you do provide an update, use precise language and back up your claims with evidence, including data and external sourcing.
A 2021 survey of randomly selected websites found that 40% contained misleading environmental claims, with vague phrases like ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural products’ strewn around.
Where possible, find a standardised way of reporting on progress. Microsoft, for example, is calling for everyone to measure carbon emissions in the same way in order to avoid creating confusion and ultimately deluding people about the pace of progress.
Set out your stall
Not all elements of ESG matter equally to every company. The relevance of each aspect can depend on the industry you operate in. And so can the speed of progress. After all, it is far easier to control and cut your carbon footprint as a financial services company than it is as a manufacturing giant.
Develop a position on key topics that are important to your company and its stakeholders, and then communicate that position as clearly as you can.
The healthcare firm Johnson & Johnson does this really well, with an A-Z guide of its ESG policies, from waste management to sustainable packaging and antimicrobial resistance.
Such policies help inform best practice and reinforce a brand’s position for transparency, as well as establishing it as a go-to source of information.
Involve your audience
It’s also important to avoid one-sided conversations where you simply tell your audience what you’re doing. To truly engage people, you also need to listen to their concerns and respond to their queries, whether that’s by replying on social media or providing forums to debate key issues.
Salesforce is an example of a company doing just that by creating a global community that aims to unite businesses and individuals so that they can drive change on environmental issues together.
Storytelling – which showcases the human impact of ESG policies – is a key way to demonstrate your brand’s commitments in an engaging manner.
Whether that’s by interviewing scientists about the speed of glacier melting or showcasing how electric vehicles can help drive an energy revolution, content can help create a positive brand perception that will complement more formal policies and updates.
The future of ESG comms
The COVID-19 pandemic has potentially created a watershed moment for the ‘S’ pillar of ESG. It has shed light on inequalities – poverty, the gender divide and mental health, among others – and created the expectation that businesses now have a greater responsibility towards employees and the communities in which they operate.
Authenticity and clarity is key in all communications and content around these topics, both for the reputation of brands but also to ensure that true progress is being made.
About the author: Gay Flashman is the CEO and founder of Formative Content. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.
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