If a tree doesn’t fall in a forest and no one sends out a press release about it – has it still been saved?
The old philosophical thought experiment rings true when surveying the work of companies and their burgeoning efforts around sustainability and better governance.
The most popular time to file this reports is at the end of the tax year – which is 1 April for the British governments and local companies. That means increasingly we are fielding inquires about what exactly to do with a report that has occupied hundreds of hours and is a seen internally as a major accomplishment.
It’s a tricky question.
When deciding how big of a deal to make environmental commitments, consider some things that have been said by others. Google has pledged to be carbon free (not neutral) by 2030. Meta has promised to be water positive by 2030. Patagonia has pledged to only use renewable energy and recycled down in their coats.
Not everyone has the deep pockets and need for good publicity of the tech giants. But it’s vital to remember that the numbers will be at the back of people’s mind, and require context to remove. If you are going carbon neutral in 2030 – what does that mean if your largest competitor will do it five years earlier? And there needs to be understanding and separation between vague pledges and binding goals for benchmarking.
The press, the European press in particular, are increasingly self-appointed guardians of ensuring that corporations live in accordance to their professed values. A particular area of focus is the monitoring of the gender pay gap, which must be disclosed by companies of a certain size and is increasingly being revealed by others.
What journalists think
To illustrate this, we recently had some background conversations with reporters about how they feel about these reports to get a better idea of what’s welcome and what’s just likely to annoy.
In general there was a warm reception to these reports, although they were not seen as newsworthy unto themselves. Reporters said they seldom would write up a single report, but may look for trends to incorporate in larger pieces.
Good sustainability reports can be seen as credentialing. One reporter said, “If a firm is clear about what it is investing in and why/what its ESG/responsible policies are, it makes it more likely that I'll speak to them about other things as I trust they tell the truth.”
At the end of the day, no one report can mask a poor reputation or make reports overlook a lack of investment, but they can bring focus to the strategy of a business.
How to break through
With this contradictory advice, the simplest route might seem to be inaction. Send the report to shareholders and customers and forgo any proactive outreach to the media.
For some that will be the best approach, but that’s far from universal.
The message from reporters is a desire to know about how executives are embedding a commitment to sustainability goals into executive action. It is a worthwhile exercise to show the fruits of this commitment, even if it is just the first few steps of a roadmap.
Communications can sharpen the best, most distinctive parts of a particular strategy. The best discussions and emails offer a guide through a dense thicket of information to make sure people find the points of interest.
Try explaining in plain English to a colleague what a company is doing, and see what it feels coming out of your mouth. Is it understandable? Does it hold up?
Look for supporting video materials from throughout the year that might provide interesting quotes and frank discussions of the commitment.
Don’t be afraid to showcase areas where there needs to be improvement. Reporters tend to be much more sympathetic and understanding when they hear about something in context. That’s also why setting up an in-depth conversation with just a couple journalists around the time of the report can be incredibly useful. It’s very convincing to
Finally, keep expectations proportional. Just like going carbon-free or becoming a B-corp, establishing a company as a leader on sustainability isn’t done overnight. But keeping track of progress, and then sharing the best parts of that journey, can lead to powerful long term results.
Jon Schubin is a director in the London office. London-based associate director Angelina Haynes contributed to this article.