Common ESG communication mistakes and how to avoid them

October 10, 2021

When creating and sharing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials, many companies fall short when it comes to one fundamental aspect: communication. It’s not enough to have your house in order – how you communicate this to staff, investors and customers is a crucial component of creating a truly sustainable business.

Communique are a team of ESG communications specialists and during our cross-sector work with organisations of varying types, we’ve seen some serious blunders when it comes to communicating sustainability.

I recently spoke at the Comms Hero virtual conference, where I shared with delegates the story behind the rise of ESG communication, and why many companies are still falling short.

Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve encountered:

1. Not linking ESG initiatives to wider company purpose: In my experience, this can be the most dangerous mistake of them all. In other blogs I have discussed how detrimental greenwashing can be to the environment, but it can also have serious financial implications if consumers perceive your ESG tactics as superficial or inauthentic. Not only are customers likely to take their business elsewhere, but they may also call out your behaviour in a public forum and influence other potential customers.

An example of a brand that has managed to successfully embed sustainability at the very core of their organisation is Unilever. When they made the commitment to becoming fully people and planet-focused, the first action leader Paul Polman took was to dig back through the archives and uncover Unilever’s founding principle, which was to make cleanliness commonplace. Their purpose now, under this new direction, is to make sustainable living commonplace, which runs through all of their business activity.

2. Focusing on shock tactics and negative messaging: Climate panic is a serious problem for communications specialists, and it is generally caused by negative stories that create feelings of helplessness and overwhelm on the part of the consumer using shock tactics. Shock, inherently, is fleeting, which is the opposite of the long-term approach brands should be taking when it comes to sustainability.

For consumers to become sustainable, they need to adopt a new mindset to enforce new behaviours, which should be the central aim of ESG communications. To do this, focus on educating your customers and leaving them with an action, as too much emphasis on crisis ahead of us can provoke inertia. This issue is exacerbated when companies also…

3. Don’t make clear the role consumers play: When it comes to promoting action, customers need information. Businesses play a significant role in the climate crisis, but not without a proactive from consumers. Don’t be afraid to tell your customers exactly what they need to do to uphold their end of the deal. This might also be bolstered by incentives.

Often this issue is caused by something industry experts call ‘campaign vomiting’. Brands will focus on a campaign, launch it, and then forget about it, without tying it to a story or a timeline. If sustainability action is perceived as fleeting, it is unlikely that customers will commit to making long-term changes to support it.

4. Not involving employees in the ESG journey: Getting internal buy-in is half the battle to achieving true sustainability. Once an ESG strategy is set, it must be implemented and communicated from the ground up; only then will it have the best possible chances of succeeding.

This is clearly shown in Communique’s recent research across 3 of the biggest crowdfunding platforms, looking at the top 10 most successful campaigns. Our findings uncovered that 8 of these high-performing campaigns focused solely on employees to highlight their ESG narrative. Think about how your business could adopt this approach.

Now we’ve discussed the common mistakes, here are some quick-wins ways to avoid them:

1. Tell the economical story behind ESG: Show people the value of what you’re doing. This doesn’t mean overwhelming customers with numbers, but consider the following: Why as a company have you decided to become people and planet-focused and what are the real-world implications of that? A social value calculator can be a powerful tool in identifying the answers to these important questions.

2. Make it a positive story: Avoiding negativity doesn’t mean you can shy away from provoking emotion from your customers. Positive news stories can be as powerful as negative ones and showing the benefit your ESG action is taking can be a tactic worth considering to win customers’ hearts and minds.

3. Make it relevant and holistic: Take your customers through the whole ESG journey. Tell them where you were, where you are now and where your strategy is taking your business. That is your customer’s hook to partner with you in the long-term and invest in your journey towards true sustainability.

4. Normalise ESG within your day-to-day communications: Consistency is key, and your organisation’s focus on the people and planet should be fully embedded into business-as-usual activity. Do not treat it as a nice to have or an optional extra. Consistent, clear communications on your sustainability agenda will enable your business to co-create a powerful narrative with your audience that you’ll both believe in.

Read also: Don't generalise the generations-post COVID-19. Here's why

Take a step in the right direction and get in touch with Communique today. Our global team of experts will help your business to define, translate and clarify your ESG strategy into customer-friendly communications to drive your organisation forward into a more sustainable future.


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