ESG experts discuss the power of comms to build a sustainable future

From shareholder pressure to talent attraction, sustainability is having a profound impact across business. PRWeek and Investis Digital convened with an expert panel to discuss the increasingly significant role of comms in progressing the sustainability agenda.

Watch now: A discussion on how to build a sustainable future through the power of comms, in partnership with Investis Digital

Sustainability is a defining topic of our age – whether you like it or not. For businesses looking to demonstrate their commitment to the issue, managing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) communications is now one of their biggest challenges.

PRWeek and Investis Digital hosted an expert panel to discuss communications issues that arise as businesses look to promote sustainability, and how they’re holding themselves to account.

Knowing where to start

David Irish, investor relations and ESG senior manager, Vodafone, described an “explosion of interest” in the subject.

“My personal biggest challenge is just keeping up with the changes, the consultations, the voluntary codes, and the frameworks. It is a lot to deal with,” he said.

Knowing where to start is a big problem, especially when it comes to defining terms in a sector beset by so much jargon. Kirsten Doddy, global head of marketing and communications, at sustainability consultancy, Anthesis, said corporates needed to know the audiences they are addressing and what is true to the business.

“Businesses can’t tackle everything at one time. It’s that prioritisation which will help you have a real Northstar about what you should do, in what order, and where you should put those resources.

Linking purpose and profit

Bupa has put sustainability at the core of its new corporate strategy, said Julia Giannini, its head of environment and climate action.

“Every decision we make needs to build in the sustainability and the carbon impact of that decision making and every stakeholder Bupa needs to be part of this change.”

While many investors are integrating ESG factors into their investment decisions, there are others, as exemplified by stock picker, Terry Smith, who have poured cold water on the issue of whether businesses need a ‘purpose’ beyond making a profit.

Al Loehnis, director of strategic business development, UK & Europe, Investis Digital, asked whether Vodafone sensed from its engagement with shareholders that the pendulum had swung too far.

Irish disagreed and said that if purpose is well articulated and relevant, then purpose and profit should be linked.

For Vodafone, the purpose of connectivity aligns completely with the business and, if anything, investor interest in the ESG discussion has become even more focused, demanding and sophisticated recently, he added.

Focusing on the opportunities

Businesses should focus more on opportunity than risk, whereas the tendency can be the other way round, said Loehnis.

Irish accepted this but said that focusing on the opportunities for a business like Vodafone had a powerful message, showing how technology could help, for example.

“We have over 140 million internet of things connections that are fundamentally digitalising society and helping customers reduce their own emissions,” he said.

With long-term sustainable targets years away, it was useful to focus comms on short-term gains, said Giannini.

“In Australia, we signed a huge PPA agreement this year which allowed the business to run all owned sites on 100% renewable energy that is actually a really big win in a market where it’s hard to find renewable energy to power your business,” she said.

Leading from the top

Leadership alignment is fundamentally important, and Irish said he was pleased that ESG didn’t sit on one person’s shoulders and was the responsibility of the entire leadership team at Vodafone.

Today’s leaders are increasingly concerned about their legacy beyond profit so can really engage with ESG issues, added Giannini.

“This is a space where a lot of true leaders want to leave their business, and the ecosystem within which their business operates, in a better place compared to when they started. And this is something that we can really tap into.”

When it comes to delivering the message, an integrated approach to communications is more effective, making use of a multiplicity of channels, tools and voices that are best suited to each stakeholder group, said Doddy.

“You’re hearing the same message but from different voices and different channels. It’s really important to have that integrated feeling that you believe a brand really gets sustainability.”

Always on

Sustainability comms should no longer be confined to an annual report – they need to be always on, said Giannini.

“Sustainability is an active agenda. We don’t do sustainability in order to report it once a year,” she said. “It’s something live that fundamentally needs to be delivered in every decision that we make throughout the business.”

Irish advocates elevating ESG information reporting almost to the level of frequency of financial KPIs and metrics, but admits there is a long way to go given many details, such as standardisation, need to be resolved.

Indeed, the proliferation of standards, frameworks and guidelines in recent years has been a distraction and organisations have to choose carefully from the hundreds of those they want to align to, said Doddy.

“You want to ensure you’re authentic and credible on anything you’re doing or using,” she said. “Be transparent. It’s okay to admit that you haven’t done something but plan to rectify it. Remember, we’re all on this same journey.”

For more advice about sustainability and ESG communications contact Investis Digital here.

Thank you to Investis Digital for partnering with PRWeek on this panel discussion.

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