As the CEOs of many US companies have learned lately, there’s a new boss in town—and it goes by the well-known moniker of ESG.
Content strategists and communications executives accustomed to top-down directives or ideas that bubble up from inside their organization now face outside-in pressure to join conversations they once avoided. The new expectation is that outrage among citizens should quickly translate into outreach by corporate leaders. Planning content around Pride Week, International Women’s Day, or Black History Month is no longer enough; corporations now are expected to regularly release statements condemning police brutality, restrictive voting legislation, and violence affecting minority populations.
The era of bold stances on prominent social issues has only just begun, and the anticipated benefits—increased brand awareness, stronger ties to existing stakeholders, and enhanced ability to attract and retain top talent—will accelerate this trend. Already, companies are devoting considerable resources to publicizing initiatives and milestones that fall under the broad environmental, social, and governance umbrella.
But too often, we see companies start wordsmithing ESG-friendly statements before they’ve strategically thought about their initiatives, metrics, record of progress, and level of disclosure. An asset management firm that promotes a fund’s new ESG focus risks being skewered if all that’s changed is the fund’s name. Similarly, if a company hasn’t put forth or passed ESG-related proxy measures, its overall credibility will suffer.
At the same time, companies need to think about the added scrutiny that often follows a bold statement—or lack thereof. Organizations can find themselves in the hot seat if they fail to make timely decisions, as some companies did during the debate about Georgia’s new voting regulations; if they make business decisions that run counter to existing policies and statements; or if they issue well-received statements but don’t practice what they preach, as tech companies discovered when they condemned George Floyd’s murder but then saw their underwhelming DE&I stats land on a website devoted to Black tech trends and news.
To gauge your readiness to participate in the ESG content space, consider these questions:
• Have we done enough to be transparent and report on our ESG metrics?
• What long-range goals have we set, and what commitments are we prepared to make?
• Are we confident that we understand our ESG shortcomings, and are we prepared to respond if we get called out for greenwashing?
• Do we have a distinctive approach to ESG, and is there a story only we can tell?
Once you’ve worked through the questions above, there are three ways to help make your ESG content stand out:
Keep your finger on the ESG pulse: It may feel impossible to drink from the firehose of ESG content when every day brings approximately two new research studies related to ESG. Establishing a process for keeping tabs on external ESG developments can bolster your company’s insights—and provide critical intel on what your peers and competitors are doing. It’s equally important to get a sense of what’s on the minds of internal stakeholders. When the entire company knows ESG is a content priority and is open to input, it’s easier to gather diverse perspectives on content angles.
Lean into transparency: A standout ESG content strategy cannot succeed if it only highlights progress, achievements, and values. Too often, organizations ignore their history, their flaws, and their need for improvement, which could spark a communications crisis. Content strategists need to understand the alignment—or disconnect—between what their leadership team wishes to assert and what they’ve done. Executives may need to reconcile their words and actions or be prepared to counter requests for a new statement with content that successfully pivots the discussion to their company’s long-standing practices.
Craft robust content-development strategies: It’s more than writing provocative, memorable copy. Having a defined approach for identifying and evaluating emerging ESG issues, coupled with deep knowledge about your corporate culture, values, and lines of business, can help content teams execute at a higher level. Organizations that think strategically about disseminating their ESG content and embrace various channels, including Instagram and TikTok, could better engage a variety of ESG audiences. Organizations should also consider whether a one-size-fits-all approach works for their company or if they should create distinctive, targeted content for clients, shareholders, and other stakeholder groups.
Content creators can play a powerful role in advancing an organization’s approach to ESG by carving out unique narratives that are transparent and provide insight into a company’s journey to improving its ESG commitments.
Ellen Comisar, a Leff consultant, contributed to this piece.