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An effective program for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) management and communication can fundamentally make an organization stronger, more resilient and more attractive to investors and other key stakeholders, while helping to mitigate long-term risks.

In today’s blog we talk to Evan Zall about how to incorporate public relations into an ESG program. Zall is President of Longview Strategies, a strategic marketing and communications firm with an emphasis on sustainability and finance. With more than 20 years in strategic marketing, Evan believes that strong communications can resolve a great number of complex challenges in the world – and clarifying connections between sustainability and profit is one of those challenges. Evan has been a speaker at national and regional sustainable investing forums, is a founding member of PR Masterminds, and is a contributor to the upcoming book, “Aligning Hearts, Minds, Wallets: A Collective Experience (Reshaping Capitalism for the Greater Global Good).”

  • Q: Thanks for joining us today, Evan. Has the corporate narrative changed in the media relative to sustainability due to COVID-19 and social justice movements?

A: The sustainability narrative has changed significantly in 2020 – and not just around COVID-19. This year we’ve seen multiple issues peak in terms of urgency, impact, and awareness; corporations are right in the middle of the storm (climate pun intended). The pandemic brought human capital management and healthcare to the fore. Black Lives Matter demonstrated why diversity, equity, and inclusion is a deep and multi-faceted societal and corporate conversation. The West Coast wildfires and a looming hurricane season drove home the realities of climate change.

That’s quite a list. Deep breaths, everyone.

The role of the corporation has changed, a fact underscored by the Business Roundtable’s 2019 decision to reframe corporate obligations to go beyond shareholder needs, addressing the broader sphere of constituents. Fast forward to 2020, and a company’s influence over its ecosystem of employees, customers, vendors, communities, and investors has been made clear by the relentless onslaught of undeniably dire, real-world, tangible and material risks.

The important signal from these converging sustainability issues is that stakeholders are beginning to expect proactive initiatives that address concerns. Companies should have strategically cohesive plans to further a strong position that is rooted in the actual world we live in. Sustainability isn’t a lark. It’s an integral part of a corporation’s success, and it should be treated as such.

Getting back to the media: not too long ago, sustainability was covered by the press as if it were a quaint idea – a way to highlight companies that were trying to be the good guys in a world gone bad. Welcome to 2020, in which that dismissive perspective is being proven embarrassingly off key. The script has flipped, and media are suddenly much more up to speed on the difference between good actors and bad actors – and why it matters that we amplify positive developments. Increased data and transparency is also changing the focus from vague aspirations to measurable outcomes.

Media coverage of prominent sustainability issues is also making a clear financial and reputational impact on corporations. Taking COVID-19 as an example, companies that protected their ecosystem with compassion and economic sensibility earned reputation boosts, while those that did not felt the negative impact. In fact, in a State Street study of corporate responses to COVID-19, aggregations of online reactions and news coverage showed that “firms experiencing more positive sentiment on their human capital, supply chain, and operational response to COVID-19 experienced higher institutional money flows and less negative returns.”

Brass tacks: sincere efforts to respond to the virus, provide solutions, and promote those solutions with sensitivity and grace were well received. Opacity, short-sightedness, and selfish behavior were spurned.

Get used to that contrast.

  • Q: How do you avoid the appearance of greenwashing when driving PR about sustainability?

A: Anyone who went to high school (or saw Patrick Dempsey’s Oscar-worthy performance in the 1987 classic, Can’t Buy Me Love), knows that popularity is a double-edged sword. The trends that get you noticed showcase your strengths and raise awareness among new allies, but those same trends invite “posers” to the table.

A sustainability narrative doesn’t work unless it’s real. Companies need to back their stories up with hard goals, metrics, and case studies. They need to understand the difference between ESG and impact, two concepts that are routinely conflated. ESG is an analytical approach to measuring issues that are material to the company, while impact initiatives imply a pure focus on social outcomes. Both have benefits, but ESG programs provide the business metrics that analysts and audiences can use to measure risk, opportunity, and progress.

ESG programs also provide the substance that separates fable from fact – a key component for public relations initiatives. When external communications teams can rely on measurable goals that reflect a strategic vision, the story becomes real for journalists and audiences. Even if the goals are aspirational, the fact that the company is setting and pursuing them begins to shape an authentic story.

A second component to demonstrating authenticity is tying those metrics to the human story. What effect does the company’s efforts have on its employees, customers, and community? When numbers come together with relatable, real-life examples, the authenticity of the effort is clear and unassailable.

  • Q: What PR tools are most effective in communicating a company’s sustainability story?

A: Public relations initiatives rarely work best in isolation, and that’s especially true when it comes to creating an authentic message and dialogue. To engage with the media – as well as on social media – companies need three items:

  • Q: How should a company make their sustainability narrative stand out from the crowd to get media attention?

A: Media interest is always about timeliness of issues, proof of impact, and great content. To engage in the conversation, companies need to demonstrate why their initiatives matter and convey the storyline in a compelling package.

This goes back to the idea that media relations doesn’t do well in a vacuum. For the best results, concrete goals should be set — think “reduce emissions by 20% by 2025,” or “invest an additional $10M in employee development by 2022.” If material issues are identified and corresponding goals are instituted as part of a long-term strategy, companies have a narrative that’s ready to go when specific issues spike.

There will be pressure to “chase the puck” by either adjusting a sustainability program to match a topical issue or pursuing media coverage for issues that aren’t a compelling part of the company strategy. This serves to detract on two fronts. First and foremost, any resulting coverage will run counter to the identified goals of the program. Secondarily, it could create the perception that earning attention for sustainability is the company’s true motivation. Putting dents in the authenticity of the program is one of the fastest ways to tear down the company’s credibility.

  • Q: How do you recommend companies develop a sustainability “brand?”

A: This is a big question. It’s not an easy task, but as with any business-critical concern, the longer companies wait the further behind they’ll be as the marketplace demand for ESG programs increases.

First of all, recognize that building a sustainable brand is a journey – just like the sustainability program itself. A phased approach allows companies to focus on points along the way, and that will build brand strength over time.

It begins with goal setting and transparent reporting. To use this transparency in their favor, companies must prioritize telling their own sustainability stories in their own way. By owning the narrative instead of chasing shareholder or public sentiment, they will engender more trust in the brand and related storylines.

In many ways, the initial steps are no different than a traditional messaging and brand building process. Map out the strengths of the program, identify their relevance to the company’s ecosystem, explore competitor efforts that cross over, and create a narrative that points to measurable growth. If these pieces are tied into the overarching corporate brand and strategy, ESG will present as a natural and authentic part of the company’s trajectory.

With an international reputation as a preeminent strategic IR advisory firm, Sharon Merrill partners with IROs and the C-Suite to drive value for both external and internal stakeholders. For more than 35 years, clients have relied on our senior-level counsel and communications expertise to guide them through every challenge – and meet every opportunity. Whether you need to improve your IR program, manage a crisis, develop an ESG program or simply crystallize your story, we deliver measurable results through crisp messaging, effective executive presentation development and training, and high investor engagement.

We take a strategic approach to every situation as we leverage sophisticated stakeholder engagement and innovative digital media, social media and branding strategies to help you build enduring and value-creating relationships with the right audiences. Let’s get to work!

Sharon Merrill employs a proprietary and systematic approach to build a strategic ESG platform for you. Please visit the ESG Engagement section of our website for more information.

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David Calusdian

David is an accomplished communicator with more than 30 years of experience in advising and coaching CEOs, CFOs, IROs, and boards of directors through a range of critical communications events, including IPOs, quarterly earnings results, executive transitions, and M&A. David is an acknowledged authority on executive presentation coaching, investor relations strategy, investor day execution, and strategic messaging.