Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) causes have gained greater importance in
the corporate world in the wake of COVID-19 as a result of greater public interest in
sustainable living. As such, investors, consumers and employees are demanding that
companies serve more than the interests of shareholders.
An Edelman study shows that 84% of investors agree that maximising shareholder returns can no longer be the primary goal of an organisation. Climate change is the number one issue for Gen-Z, who will form 25% of the global workforce by 2025. And 57% of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact, according to a study by IBM.The research also suggests a correlation between progressive ESG policies and good financial performance.
Clearly, then, there is a strong business case for companies to invest in ESG initiatives and policies, but worryingly it is leading to another trend: ‘greenwashing’ – firms making false claims about their ‘green’ credentials. In practice, this amounts to the promotion of products, services and policies as more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
With a whole array of ESG standards and the absence of an overarching regulatory authority scrutinising compliance, companies can easily fall into the trap of making unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims. But doing so is, increasingly, a reputational and financial risk, because business audiences are very much alert to inauthentic messages and shallow marketing slogans around green issues.
Research shows that customer loyalty and satisfaction with a product take a hit if it is associated with greenwashing. The lesson from this is that if you want to engage in green marketing make sure what you say is reasonable and accurate and, if possible, can be backed up with evidence. Otherwise, you may spend more time fending off criticism of your ESG record than benefiting from the opportunities it can deliver.
PR professionals working for companies wanting to develop green marketing strategies need to stress test their employers’ green credentials before creating campaigns promoting them. Making sure they stand up to scrutiny is critical and will determine how bold the ESG messaging can be. The task is a challenging one because as mentioned earlier there is no definitive international standard to comply with and no authority monitoring whether your company is doing so or not.
Having undertaken a review of green claims, the PR professional has a responsibility to draw attention to any that are unsafe and potentially reputationally harmful were they to be pursued in a campaign. But it doesn’t stop there. They should propose to their respective company boards new initiatives and policies that would buttress the ESG narrative they would like to convey to their various audiences.
In this regard, allowing PR professionals to have such a board-level input is not unprecedented. In the past, ESG initiatives were undertaken by PR and communications teams working on investor relations, corporate communications and sustainability topics. More recently, their involvement in ESG has fallen away. PR professionals are responsible for leading ESG in only 19% of organisations, the task now mostly carried out by CEOs and other C-level executives.
The 2020 State of the Profession Report by the CIPR showed that the biggest challenge for PR professionals was the under-representation of PR at the board level. But the importance corporates are increasingly attaching to green issues is an argument for improving representation. That’s because it is not only about ESG messaging but also whether the right policies and initiatives are in place to support it. PR professionals are well-qualified to ensure that what companies want to communicate matches what they do. In the age of corporate purpose that is invaluable for any board.
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