After the uncertainty of 2020, corporate affairs directors and boards are now identifying the most urgent socio-economic trends in 2021. States around the world played an expanded role during COVID-19, with a level of intervention not seen in liberal democracies for nearly a century.
This will abate, but with the need to invest to fund growth and redress inequality, governments feel empowered to mandate change. This is driving increased stakeholder demand for transparency and action on critical environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues including carbon emissions and boardroom diversity.
Some of the communication challenges uppermost in companies’ minds are:
Ahead of COP26, one-third of the FTSE 100 has signed up to Race to Zero, a UN-backed organisation for climate leaders. A Net Zero pledge used to make businesses stand out; now it’s needed just to be part of the pack. Companies that fall behind face growing pressure from regulators, investors and civil society. The emphasis is shifting from lofty, long-term targets to showing businesses are doing enough, fast enough, with clear plans.
Communicators have a key role to play in warning chief executives of the cost of being behind the curve, such as reputation damage, increased regulation and tax.
In parallel, the pandemic has emphasised the value of meaningful corporate action on ESG issues. It’s demonstrated to investors that it strengthens management’s ability to respond effectively to new risks and shown the fragility of our relationship with nature, increasing engagement on climate change.
The ‘S’ in ESG has gained a permanent spot on boardroom agendas. The consequences of the pandemic have not been equitable: in the UK, ethnic minority mortality rates were higher than for white people. The same is true for the poorer in society. The effect of furlough on the gender pay gap is still unclear. Female representation on boards improved, but executive levels are still not good enough; nor is pipeline progression. Ethnic minority representation remains woeful. This is an urgent priority: boards are mandating rapid action.
Meanwhile, mental health challenges are now a critical consideration. Staff will be supportive of employers that act with integrity and respect. Comms is pivotal: how companies ‘show up’ and deliver meaningful change is crucial to legitimacy.
Boards are looking for the transformational deal or innovation surfaced by the pandemic to catapult them ahead of their rivals. It accelerated the execution of strategies, through digitisation or overdue restructuring. Change creates opportunities for the brave, but must be driven by clear purpose to maintain trust and build advocacy.
Faeth Birch is chief executive, UK and international, at Finsbury Glover Hering