The Dos and Don’ts of Sustainability Communications: Why Overstating, Understating, or Not Stating At All Are Major No-Nos When it Comes to ESG.

Written By Elizabeth Saunders, Partner & Suzanne McGovern, Director

November 22, 2022

If we could offer companies only one word of advice on sustainability communications, it would be this: Transparency.

But since we have the luxury of this article, allow us to elaborate. The point we want to make is that ESG communications are not like typical corporate pieces that need a lot of polishing to ensure the company comes across looking its best. Rather, the Corporate Sustainability Report (CSR), ESG-focused areas of your website, and other corporate ESG materials are unique in that they don’t need (nor should they have) any sort of spin at all. ESG communications should be informative, straightforward pieces that put it all out there in black and white, empowering investors, ratings agencies, and other stakeholders to make informed decisions.

Just the facts, please.

Of course, this can make some traditional communications professionals a bit nervous. After all, what if your ESG initiatives are only in their fledgling stages? What if you’ve yet to hit any major milestones? Shouldn’t you word your communications in such a way as to spotlight the intent and gloss over any lack of meaningful metrics?

The answer is no, simply because investors and ESG ratings agencies are already wired to recognize and give you credit for work in progress. ESG communications are essentially a vehicle for delivering the realities. No need to spend time figuring out how to beef up or play down activity. Indeed, overstating, understating, or omitting material information could bring an unintended negative response to your message. So, keep it candid. This checklist can help you ensure transparent ESG communications do the job they are intended to do.

ESG Communications Dos:

  • Do share everything material, just not every minutia – While transparency is the key to an effective ESG agenda, there is a limit as to what is reasonable to include in your CSR narrative and other communications. If you feel the urge to share every little detail, remember that it is more important to share key concepts. For example, if you have included an upgrade to your processing system that will create efficiencies across a portfolio, then that is your message. Avoid elaborating on how the upgrade impacts each and every brand in the portfolio. If you are leveraging a specific ESG reporting framework, it will guide you as to what material to include, but granularity is best saved for reference data tables and framework indexes.  It’s also okay to go into more detail for a few key ESG changes, however, consider doing so in a separate case study or two that interested stakeholders can download and dive into to learn more.
  • Do share progress and future goals – ESG communication is unique in that progress does not need to be reported in “milestones” only. A company will be recognized by investors and ratings agencies even if all that has been accomplished thus far is laying the groundwork for an initiative. For example, if a company has an internal infrastructure to handle health and safety and is currently in a three-year process toward an ISO certification, this still can and should be reported.
  • Do share negative outcomes – Nearly all organizations experience an ESG misstep at one point or another. You may miss a target, or your data may show a year-over-year difference in the wrong direction. Game plan stakeholder reaction with your internal teams. Typically, it is best to report the outcome, along with a note that it was flagged and that a plan is in place (or being built) to explore and reverse the issue.
  • Do choose a home for your story – Grappling with where to share your ESG journey is a regular debate within many boardrooms, whether organizations are annually reporting or not. The typical decision tree includes all the usual suspects: time, money, and ongoing commitment to upkeep. However, having your information readily available will ensure stakeholders, including rating organizations, have ready access to all the ESG happenings within your company. You can publish this information in an ESG section within your investor relations website, a branded section on your corporate website, or both. If you decide to create a CSR, be sure to capture the point-in-time-report in a separate downloadable PDF rather than simply uploading to the website to ensure you do not lose reporting history during an update. While the best choice of format will differ by company, the important thing to remember is that sharing a commitment to action—wherever you decide to share it— will be well received.
  • Do speak to your (many) audiences – Company stakeholders usually encompass a diverse group. Reaching one stakeholder group will be very different from how you reach another. It makes sense to have information linked in multiple locations within a CSR or ESG web page to capture a broader range of people. For example, you may want to reach customers, future employees, investors, and ratings agencies. So, your report may reference the company’s leadership program and its impact on employee retention within one section, talk about how this same program has impacted communications to reduce manufacturing accidents in another area, and include the retention rate within a framework index in a third location. Stakeholders will go straight to the specific information they want to see. Having relevant material linked in multiple places will ensure all audiences get the message, and the links may draw them in to learn more.
  • Do evaluate – Stakeholders don’t always respond in expected ways. When communicating ESG, it is a good idea to add a periodic survey of stakeholders, maybe embedded with an existing mechanism, to ensure that your audience is, in fact, getting your story and you can identify how they are accessing the information. It may take a few changes to get the communication mix right to correctly reach all your target stakeholders.

ESG Communications Don’ts

  • Don’t overstate what you are doing – The term “greenwashing” has been around for decades. It refers to an organization that overstates actions, benefits, or reporting to appear more sustainable than it really is. It can be a serious hit to the organization’s reputation to be accused of stretching the message beyond action.
  • Don’t omit or understate key information – The opposite of greenwashing, greenhushing is opting out of or underreporting on key data, actions, or reporting. If a company is aware of a material ESG issue or problem and is still in the process of weighing options for how it will respond, simply state that this is the case. Doing so is much more effective than not saying anything at all on the topic. Any stakeholder comparing your ESG communications with those of your industry peers will most certainly note (and speculate upon) the omission.

Writing effective ESG communications is more valuable than you think.

While communicating around sustainability can sometimes feel overwhelming, and the style is certainly unique, getting the ESG narrative right is well worth the effort. Focus on presenting an honest recap of what is actually happening around the material issues impacting your industry. Once you get the cadence, you’ll find that your ESG communications can integrate into other areas of communication and work for your organization in several ways, including supporting recruiting efforts, reducing risk, and demonstrating good overall leadership. Ultimately, quality ESG communications that connect with all your critical stakeholders have the power to significantly enhance your organization’s reputation. Now, all you need to do is tell it like it is. If you could use a hand in creating or refining your sustainability communications, contact us today. Our team of sustainability writers can help you nail down the ESG narrative that will resonate best with your audiences.

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