From the Editor-in-Chief: 'Proving the media zeitgeist for ESG but brands must beware'

A fascinating new report this week reveals the extent to which ‘issues-led’ stories now dominate brand coverage in the British media.

From the Editor-in-Chief: 'Proving the media zeitgeist for ESG but brands must beware'

By ‘issues-led’, the report is referring to all those ‘purpose’ topics – more recently referred to as ESG activities – such as sustainability, social and racial justice and, of course, public health, that have become such a priority for brand and corporate comms executives in recent years.

Commissioned by Brands2Life (B2L) and Media Measurement (MM), the report looks at the coverage of such issues in 25 key UK media outlets, from the Financial Times and Wall St Journal, through the BBC online, to The Guardian and Daily Mail. It found a growing prevalence of these topics, not only in the overall editorial output (where coverage of social issues has doubled, for example) but specifically when related to brands; both negatively (criticising brands’ performance in these areas) and positively (when businesses have proactively campaigned on these issues).

There had been a steady year-on-year rise in the number of articles that mention brands in relation to these issues since 2015, and then a sudden acceleration during 2020 coinciding with the pandemic.

It just goes to prove the significance of ESG for the PR industry, which of course specialises in managing brand reputation and sales via earned media programmes in such media.

The growth of such output is truly substantial.

Over the past year, 53 per cent of proactive brand-related articles in the UK’s main media outlets were related to issues such as sustainability, racial and social justice and mental health. This compares with just 13 per cent five years ago.

And even when the notable COVID-19 ‘pandemic factor’ is stripped out, brand-related coverage of ESG has still at least doubled over the past five years.

Indeed, the pandemic only fuelled the trend for brand-related issues coverage in the media. Over most of the past year 33 per cent of such articles mentioned COVID-19.

We can all recall the explosion of stories from March 2020 onwards about companies and brands taking initiatives during the onset of the pandemic: LVMH turning perfume factories over to hand sanitiser production; Burberry making protective equipment for overstretched hospitals; Tesco and Sainsbury’s prioritising access for NHS workers; manifold brands raising money for charities.

And in the midst of all this, racial equality campaigns suddenly became myriad too, largely prompted by the tragic death of George Floyd in May 2020. From Ben & Jerry’s to Nike, it seemed big brand campaigns needed an anti-racism theme last summer.

B2L/MM’s report provides some evidence that the direct ‘pandemic factor’ is beginning to tail off, with a drop to 21 per cent of proactive brand-related issues articles mentioning COVID-19 in May 2021. But there’s little sign that the UK media have tired of ESG.

In fact, the issue of climate change more than doubled its presence in the news in Q1 2021 compared to Q3 2016, according to the report. And one can expect this issue to increasingly dominate for the rest of this year as we move towards the big COP26 United Nations Climate Change summit in November.

This does show the somewhat cyclical – arguably even fickle – nature of interest in ESG; as some issues rise up the media agenda, others fall away for a while.

For this reason I’d argue that the authenticity factor becomes even more important if your company or client is engaging with ethical purpose communications.

If your client is not authentic – completely committed, and for the long term – in pursuing a particular policy, then it’s a risky pursuit. Not only because you may get little credit for it for a while, but also because you risk a major backlash if you get it wrong.

The report confirms that when brands generate media coverage around ESG, it’s important to focus on issues that are a good fit with existing brand values and/or where the brand can help solve societal issues (such as through tech innovation, product design, services, supply chain changes, HR changes etc.).

If a brand publicises an initiative that is perceived as a kind of whitewashing (or ‘greenwashing’ or ‘wokewashing’), a small gesture that looks good on paper but is not in line with broader company practices can drive a negative reaction, both in the media and among the public.

For example, the report suggests that climate change now accounts for 27 per cent of engagements with content mentioning brands and ESG, but 69 per cent of the engagements were with negative articles, indicating a strong public response to criticism of, or lack of action on, climate change by brands.

The implications of all this for PR professionals?

Well, there’s little doubt that, more than ever before, comms and marketing professionals will need to focus on this whole area of ESG/ethical corporate purpose.

Equally, when they do, they need to get it right. The media’s approach to brands, to its coverage of the corporate world, is clearly evolving. Arguably the consumer’s approach and attitudes towards business are too.

And neither stakeholder is likely to become any more forgiving.

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