- ESG and PR sector study highlights a third (31%) of organisations have a policy in place to manage ESG, 41% said that it was a ‘work in progress’
- Head of Communications/PR is responsible for leading ESG in 19% of organisations but ESG is led by the CEO or another C-level function within 60% of organisations
- Over half of PR agencies polled offer ESG support to clients or are developing ESG services
Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) is one of the most radical developments in business within the last 50 years.
It’s likely to shape the way both organisations and the communications sector evolve and operate for years to come.
But what is ESG? How is it different from CSR? And how is public relations adapting to the opportunities and risks?
To help define ESG and chart its growth and impact on the communications sector, we commissioned PR industry thought leaders Stephen Waddington and Dr Jon White to produce a report ‘The Environment, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) opportunity for public relations’.
Download The Environment, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) opportunity for public relations report here.
ESG and the PR Sector Survey 2021
We surveyed 187 public relations practitioners across a range of ESG issues in April 2021 to benchmark the sector’s readiness for ESG.
According to Vuelio’s research:
- Three out of five (63%) public relations practitioners claim that they can ‘confidently define ESG and its impact on their clients or organisation’
- A third (32%) of organisations reported that they have a policy in place to manage ESG, while 41% said that it was a ‘work in progress’
- More than a quarter (27%) of public relations practitioners said that they had taken ‘no action to assess and manage ESG risk’
Organisations recognise that they have work to do to manage the issues raised by ESG. The research highlighted that:
- Three-quarters report that they are somewhat prepared (63%) or not at all prepared (12%) for ESG
- Two-thirds of organisations (67%) reported that they do not report on their ESG performance
This is a significant opportunity for public relations to support organisations and, in some cases, lead ESG. Our research found:
- ESG is led by the CEO or another C-level function within 60% of organisations
- The Head of Communications/PR is responsible for leading ESG in 19% of organisations
The study also found:
- More than half of agencies surveyed offer ESG support to clients or are in the process of developing services
- 51% public sector organisations reported that the increased focus on ESG in the private sector has had a positive impact on environmental and social policies
The research shows the growing awareness of ESG as a corporate issue, but also the opportunity for further education and bridging the gap between ESG knowledge and developing policies and strategies.
What is ESG?
As summed up by report authors Stephen Waddington and Dr Jon White, it is, at its core, ‘a call for companies to account for and report on their contribution beyond financial metrics within their scope of operation’.
ESG is a combination of environmental and social risks. For example, the business supply chain and its environmental impact, how employees are treated and human rights acts compliance.
It also includes business governance – from how legal issues such as bribery and corruption are monitored and managed through to ensuring that the board act fairly for all shareholders.
The complex of concerns grouped as ESG are significantly more far reaching than the Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR programmes.
Failure of an organisation to meet the expectation of its public in any of the three dimensions of ESG will result in reputational and investor risk. The investment community increasingly expects to be informed on company commitments to and actions on these concerns.
The term Environmental, Social and Governance’ or ‘ESG’ investing was first used in 2004 in the report from the UN Global Compact ‘Who Cares Wins’.
In 2005 the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI) were developed. The UN PRI were a voluntary set of principles designed to help institutional investors factor ESG concerns into their investment decisions to manage risk and generate sustainable long-term returns.
2020 was the year that ESG investing came of age. According to data provider Morningstar, by the end of 2020 total assets held in sustainable funds hit $1.7trillion – a 50% rise on where they started the year.
For each company, ESG goals will be very different. ‘The Environment, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) opportunity for public relations’ report includes guidance on the practicalities, frames of reference as well as the implications for those at leadership and decision-making levels.
What is the ESG opportunity for public relations?
Calls for the establishment of new roles to develop and manage ESG strategies, such as chief relationship or chief sustainability officers, are often made without reference to the roles that have been played by public relations practitioners for many years.
Given the unique relationship in many organisations between communications and the board and the importance of managing multiple stakeholders and publics in ESG, report authors Dr Jon White and Stephen Waddington are confident that ESG will be a key discipline for corporate affairs, public affairs and public relations professionals for many years to come.
They state in the report: ‘It is our firm belief that ESG concerns and how they will be met present large opportunities for public relations to make a larger contribution to organisational decision-making and performance.’
The report also contains views from senior agency leaders and communications professionals and those who have developed and delivered ESG programmes.
Thank you to John Brown, Founder and CEO of Don’t Cry Wolf; Koray Camgoz, Director of Communications and Marketing at the PRCA; Steve Earl, Managing Partner of BOLDT; David Gallagher, President of Omnicom PR; Rachel Miller, Founder of All Things IC; Mandy Pearse, President of the CIPR; and Rebecca Zeitlin, Head of Communications and External Affairs at Hybrid Air Vehicles.
‘Attitudes to ESG are rapidly changing because of the COVID-19 pandemic,’ says Hybrid Air Vehicles head of communications and external affairs Rebecca Zeitlin, ‘Scrutiny is the single word that I’d used to describe what’s brought ESG to the fore as an issue. The pandemic has created an opportunity to think and act differently’.
For CIPR president Mandy Pearse, ESG consideration is a natural fit for public relations and should be welcomed and actioned by the industry: ‘Strategic public relations practitioners take the long view on managing the organisations’ stakeholder relationships. ESG is not a quick fix but ethically implemented with purpose and commitment it is central to delivering outstanding reputation and brand loyalty.’
Internal Communications specialist and founder of All Things IC Rachel Miller, highlights the critical role of effective internal communications in ESG: ‘Companies need to ensure there’s no integrity gap between what they say and do as the first people to spot those gaps are your employees. Done well, your people need to see how they fit in and the difference their work can make to your ESG ambitions.’
Vuelio CMO Michelle Goodall believes there is an opportunity for the PR industry to bring skills and technology together to drive and continue to develop their organisational response to ESG:
‘Stephen and Jon provide excellent guidance in the report. Our tools, Vuelio and Pulsar, also provide communications professionals with the media, political, stakeholder and social media issue, share of voice, horizon scanning and audience insights they need for use in decision-making in one of the fastest developing and exciting areas of the communications industry.’
To help with planning your ESG strategy, download ‘The Environment, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) opportunity for public relations’ report here.
And join Stephen, Jon and Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Rebecca Zeitlin for the ESG opportunity for PR webinar at 14:00BST on Wednesday 19 May. Register here.