“Ugh, another one?”
This was the reaction from a friendly journalist the moment we mentioned there was a sustainability pitch coming their way. This comment encapsulates the major challenge that we face when telling ESG stories. Namely, many organisations are competing to tell their ESG story and according to some media friends, most aren’t doing it well.
Digging a little deeper into what “makes the cut” when it comes to media picking up an ESG story, two major factors jump to the forefront - credibility and impact.
Credibility vs Greenwashing
Mention credibility in the context of ESG, and the spectre of greenwashing will appear. As one journalist puts it - “Greenwashing has always been around, but now with longer buzzwords”. Combine this with the background of societal cynicism around corporate-driven ESG initiatives, and you have the perfect atmosphere to choke out real sustainable stories.
To rise above this smog, we’ll look at two of the most common types of ESG stories that organisations tell – research-driven and announcement-driven stories.
Most research-driven stories are typically built around primary research that an organisation puts out, either through a company’s own dataset (e.g. volume and types of e-commerce transactions on their platform), or through a survey of a relevant audience (e.g. attitudes towards carbon market trading among senior professionals in the APAC manufacturing industry).
Strong insights and a good headline are still essential to getting journalists interested, but the next thing they’ll dig into is your methodology. No matter how interesting the findings might be, entire narratives can be scuttled if it’s built on shaky or flawed data.
To avoid this, it is critical that communications professionals be brought in at the planning stages of a research project to provide guidance on avoiding the common issues that media have with research. Creating a credible research piece for the media is an entire standalone article in itself, but common issues include weak or irrelevant sample sizing, flawed methodology, confusing correlation and causation, or other interpretative errors.
Announcement-driven stories are typically around either new or expanded ESG initiatives that can either be a “standalone” programme (e.g. a recycling collections programme for electronics) or as a part of an organisation’s operating model (e.g. announcing the new ESG standards for all future supply chain providers).
While ESG programmes should not be done just for the sake of optics, there are communication considerations that should also go into the planning and implementation of these initiatives. One consideration is whether other aspects of an organisation conflict with the ESG initiative. For example, it would be difficult for an investment company to talk about their ESG offerings if they are still actively investing in environmentally problematic industries.
Another communication consideration would be how measurable these ESG programmes are and what benchmarks have been set. Journalists know how easy it is for a spokesperson to comment on how their business is “committed to sustainability” but without outlining tangible and measurable goals, it signals that a company is just not credible. Measurement also ties into showcasing the next important factor for effective ESG stories – impact.
Greenwashing feels like a much bigger sin compared to “typical” corporate hyperbole. Greenwashing companies look to reap the rewards of being seen as a socially conscious company, without putting in the work. In a similar vein, consider the number of brands that are “cancelled” for trying to cash in on support for social issues without putting in the work to implement meaningful change. Therefore, articulating the tangible impact of your ESG narrative is essential - both in terms of the impact on your organisation and for the community at large.
When talking about impact for an organisation, the most effective way of showing impact is focusing around cost. An ESG initiative that does not showcase a tangible significant cost to an organisation can easily be perceived as virtue signalling. For example, a one-off CSR project can be seen as trite and patronising because of the low-cost of such a project. Costs should also be viewed through the lens of relative scale. A million-dollar investment into an ESG initiative by a SME vs a global MNC would be viewed very differently by the media.
That being said, ESG initiatives do not necessarily need to be discussed exclusively in terms of costs – they can and should also talk about the benefits that they bring to an organisation. The understanding of ESG by the media has evolved and many now want showcase companies that are doing good, and in a way that is financially sustainable.
In addition to a business, media also want to understand the impact of the ESG initiative on the wider community. For example, if an organisation is talking about newly implemented green goals, they should share not only internal objectives (e.g. switching to green packaging on 90% of their products within five years), but also what this impact will have on the community and the environment (e.g. with a switch to green packaging, this will reduce up to 50 tonnes of non-recyclable packaging).
As companies seek to position ESG as being a critical part of their business operations, the bar for what makes a compelling story will only get higher. In turn, and journalists will hold organisations to a higher level of scrutiny. By making sure ESG initiatives are filtered through the lens of credibility and impact, organisations can not only be more effective in telling their ESG stories, but also avoid publicity missteps in this increasingly crowded space.
Ian Lee is an associate director in Cognito's Hong Kong office