Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on ESG. But having been involved in the preparation of a report, the learning curve has been steep and has me deeply interested. Sharing some of my views and I hope they resonate with you.
As a real-life story goes, the CFO of a listed entity flew down 4000+ miles to London (of course pre-covid) to meet an investor. Armed with a robust business plan, there was not an iota of doubt of the deal coming through.
Cut to breakfast in London, there was confidence and crispness in the air, perfect weather, and tea for company, when the potential investor walked in and after an exchange of pleasantries opened the meeting with, “I have studied your business plan and it is impressive. You now have 30 minutes of my undivided attention to take me through your ESG initiatives.”
The CFO was stumped. The investment didn’t come through.
Cognizance towards Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) has been gaining pace. Remember the Black Lives Matter campaign, instigated by the death of George Floyd where the world stood together united in support of diversity and inclusion, extending it to the corporate framework? Cyclone Amphan in 2020, another result of Climate change, and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated ESG, bringing the environment, human capital, healthcare, and governance to the forefront.
There was a time when an institutional investor’s key objective and the investee company’s key obligation was to maximize returns for shareholders. Today it is about ‘responsible investment’, with both investors and shareholders becoming socially conscious about the impact the Company makes on the environment, its people, communities, and on the governance front. These levers have a direct impact on fundraising and funding retention.
The ESG narrative has also been gaining interest amongst the media. With a clear financial and reputational impact on corporations, we are seeing the needle shift and focus increase, in mainstream business media. The pandemic has been a great test for companies, being evaluated on how they treated their human capital, safety protocols, community service, etc. ESG stories are seeing increased media interest, as outcomes are measured, as against ambitious claims of the past.
ESG transparency has resulted in communications teams dealing with how best to communicate ESG credentials in a meaningful way, and I would think a lot of it is still evolving.
A few pointers to remember when telling your ESG narrative:
Make it a boardroom agenda
Communication will have to flow from the Board right up to your last-mile employee. It should be a boardroom agenda to drive change. When it flows from the top, it becomes part of KRA’s and overhauls mindsets to align to the common goals and purpose of ESG. This will unify employees, delivering long-term value creation.
Be authentic and have a purpose
At K Raheja Corp, for instance, we have a policy christened ‘Time off for volunteering’. This simply gives employees 6 days out of working hours to simply pursue a community service of their choice. No questions asked. It is as authentic and as simple as it can get, and with a clear purpose to encourage community service.
During the pandemic, stakeholders have kept a close eye on corporates’ response to the virus, their ability to assist employees and local communities, and its environmental impact, amongst others. Companies that have a genuine strategic plan to navigate these tough times are admired when compared to low impact, tactical and short-sighted initiatives.
Quantify, Measure, and show Proof
Provide clear targets and performance data. ESG disclosures can be made following the global set of reporting standards such as GRI, SASB, CDP – GRI probably being the most comprehensive, and followed by most corporates.
Set realistic goals, have in place accepted measurement metrics, and showcase success through case studies, as evidence. The measured outcomes when presented well, work as a great input for communication initiatives and breathe merit and authenticity into a story from the journalist’s perspective. Share real-life outcomes weaving in the human element. The authenticity is fortified when the impact of the initiatives is there to see and these make for engaging nuggets.
Educate stakeholders across the organization
Educating teams about the importance and seamless integration of ESG into everyday work practices is essential, to make the shift. There should be a policy for instance to ensure partners and vendors are aligned to your sustainability goals.
Similarly, for instance, your diversity and inclusion will require to have an ideal female: male ratio or certain training provided for employee development. What would be the outcome of the ESG Team driving changes if the mid-level manager is clueless about priorities during hiring, or training of employees?
Needless to say, an amalgamation of investor relations, sustainability, compliance, and other key teams, will form a cohort, focussed on driving the ESG transformation.
Have a passionate spokesperson
Ensure the spokesperson is genuinely genuine, feels passionately about the subject, and showcases personal involvement in driving change and leading through example.
ESG stories can be beautifully humanised to touch the soul. Talk about real life experiences, share conversations they have had with those positively impacted, tell a compelling and engaging story. The spokesperson must show absolute belief and conviction in the difference being created through the initiatives. It is also important to showcase genuine personal involvement in driving change and leading through example.
Identify differentiators that help seamlessly integrate the narrative into the journalist’s story.
Share facts and numbers
Of course, a journalist will want a good headline and story. Don’t shy away from sharing targets, investment numbers, even if those are projected, as long as you have them as part of your signed-off numbers.
For instance, “to convert 100% of vehicles to EV by the year 2025”, or “reduce emissions by 50% by the year 2030” or “to invest $5m in community impact initiatives.” Numbers also work as an indicator of the size of commitment, so package it well to tell your story with pride.
Building a sustainable brand is not going to happen overnight. It is a long ride, and while at it, savour it. Have a phased approach in building associations for the brand focused on ESG.
Set realistic goals, be backed by a clear purpose, be authentic, own your narrative and tell it genuinely and with humility. The combination of these factors, promises to weave a narrative that is nothing short of beautiful.
– Cheryl D’souza-Waldiya
GM Corporate Communication| K Raheja Corp