There’s a Rise in Accountability on ESG Issues Coming; Here’s How Companies Can Handle It

[Editor’s Note: You’d think environment, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues might suffer during the pandemic, when survival takes priority.

Yet Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ new SVP and lead of its Better Impact consultancy Cathy Resler says ESG is thriving. The global crisis, she says, led people to look at their values. This collective gut-check allowed some companies to re-think how they act, including on ESG issues.

We asked the former head of purpose, strategy and sustainability at Porter Novelli about the implications of this. In addition, we asked about promoting ESG with reluctant leaders and her advice for how companies can react to a rise in accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. And, as she formerly headed global sustainability and social impact at Ocean Spray, we asked Resler to compare working in ESG at a brand vs at an agency. Her remarks were edited for space and clarity.]    

PRNEWS: It seems this is a moment where we seeing a lot of things happening with ESG.

Cathy Resler: I think you’re right. There’s been a lot happening and a lot of convergence.

PRN: Why now?

Resler: At moments of crisis, people are willing to take a chance and do things differently. That’s what we’ve seen over the past year. It’s not good to be in a terrible place where you’re worrying about life and death. But, when you are, it allows you to focus on what’s most material and how to make change.

PRN: Does it work the other way too? The pandemic overtakes everything and ESG efforts get squeezed out?

Resler: Yes. There are companies that maybe were really interested in trying to do something different [pre-pandemic]. But because everything (the pandemic, #BLM) was the same time...[in some cases ESG, as you say, got squeezed].

Still, the collective trauma that global society’s been through...gave companies permission to act differently...[A crisis] allows folks to say, ‘You know what? We have to do something different now. We literally do not have a choice.’

Acting from ‘A Place of Purpose’

[The coronavirus pandemic as well as George Floyd’s killing] affected everything. And because of that, organizations are thinking they have to think, act and function from a place of purpose. They realize it’s allowed everyone to do a gut check on their values. And it’s really helped companies realize, ‘We have to do this. It’s right for our people; it’s right for the planet. We can’t ignore the issues; they’re all related.’

And we know that younger generations feel this way, too.

But, as we’ve seen, it’s often tied to business expenses. Companies doing well [financially] are those that realize, ‘We have to do better. We have to treat our people well. We have to do well and then we will do well.’

PRN: Let’s talk about another aspect of the pandemic and that’s WFH. How do you get buy-in for ESG when so many people are working from home and you can’t rally people around it with, for example, volunteer events or town halls? What happened during the pandemic since ESG proponents were unable to stage face-to-face events?

Resler: Believe it or not, ESG is in a better place now, for all the wrong reasons. I almost think a rah-rah moment is a distraction.

PRN: OK, but how is ESG in a better place?

Resler: It goes back to the collective trauma. Nobody has been untouched in the past year. Not one person. We’re experiencing this together. And that has created a connectivity, as much as we don’t want it [to come from a deadly pandemic]...

[The pandemic] allows folks to take a moment, reflect and realize we have to do something different…It feels like we’ve taken a pause…I am hopeful we are [now] going in the right direction...There are more conversations from leaders about ‘Let’s do this together. Let’s do this right. How do we take care of each other?’

I always say, ‘To have a better economy, you have to have a good ecology.’ You can’t ship a product in a box unless you have a forest to create that box from. And you won’t have a forest if you’re using bad [forest] management practices. And you can’t do any of that unless you have good labor practices. Everything feeds into itself...How our society functions is tied to ESG issues.

ESG and Small Companies

PRN: A scenario: I’m a communicator in a small company; maybe I’m a one-person shop. My CEO doesn’t want to hurt anybody. But we’re small and don’t have time to think a lot about ESG and CSR. How would you counsel me as a communicator in that situation? 

Resler: The great thing is that [ESG] is a little different from most business issues. It operates from a pre-competitive state. There are so many great open-source resources.

But [you must be] willing to say, ‘Hey, I need help. I don’t have the funds to do this. I don’t know where to start. I’m not an expert. What can I do? I want to stop polluting or I want gender-racial pay equity. How do I do that? And I want to be able to talk about it.’

At Minimum, Do What You Say You’re Doing

PRN: So, what do you advise?

Resler: The greatest piece of advice is to make sure your company is doing what they’re saying...You can’t just talk about something. You have to do the work first and then you talk about it. That one-two step is really important. If not, people will see through it. It has to be authentic. It has to be meaningful.

Fortunately, there are a lot of folks who are happy to help. There are so many LinkedIn groups.

Another thing is ESG and size. Ocean Spray is a big brand, but it’s not a big company. There are a few people doing a lot of the [ESG] work. That’s pretty common for a lot of brands and companies.

Handling a Rise in Accountability

PRN: As we speak, we’re on the cusp of the George Floyd anniversary. Assume I’m at a company that said ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ one year ago and meant it, but hasn’t done much since to change recruitment, hiring, diversity, pay-equity or inclusivity. What do you advise?

Resler: Plenty of companies did much more than say #BLM.

And those are the ones to look to. If you’re in a company that had good intentions, but has struggled to back up those words with action, you better get to it; accountability is key. Remember the [Floyd] verdict, how many times the word ‘accountability’ was used. I think we’re going to start seeing that word used as the term of choice in society, but also in companies and organizations.

So, how do they treat their employees, how do they choose their product offerings? With financial institutions there’s also going to be a greater expectation of accountability.

If companies have not thought about how they’re going to ‘action’ their commitments, they need to do so right now. It’s never OK to say ‘I’m going to do something’ and then not follow-through. It always comes back to haunt you.

You can say, ‘You know, I didn’t get there. I waited to do it by 2025. I need a few more years.’ That’s OK. If you’re honest about it and transparent and struggling.

But you can’t say you changed your mind, not about ESG issues…Once you [make a commitment to ESG], you are committed. You can alter how you’re going to get there. You can alter the timeline, but introduce it, no matter what.

PRN: Give an example of how to shift thinking about ESG.

Resler: Sometimes it’s good to find out where peers are in your industry. Where are they seeing success and driving revenue? Then you say, ‘They’re doing it through X, Y, Z.’ And then show that if we do X,Y,Z [on ESG] the numbers are there.

The number one way to do this is to show data. And I know that’s not something communicators always think of. Show people the numbers to back up what you’re saying. And you can close the gap and can get people to say, ‘OK, we’ll do it. Let’s talk about it.’

One more thing on this is ROI...We think, ‘Oh, [ESG] is going to cost X amount of dollars. I don’t want to spend that.’

But then think about valuation. What’s the value-add?

So, say I want to put a solar array on all of our buildings. Or I want to do a big renewable energy commitment. People will say, ‘Gosh, what will that cost?’

But then factor in how much money the initial value-add will bring. Consumers are going to care. It will drive brand loyalty. And it’s going to raise the company’s reputation...So, adding the extra values as part of that [cost] consideration and getting people to think differently about value also can help move things forward and result in greater buy-in when you’re working with smaller dollars.

PRN: You’ve been on the brand side and in agencies. Compare the two in terms of ESG.

Resler: I started as a sustainability person and I found my way into communication because I was able to take technical information and relay that. I always thought I’d be a government bureaucrat. But then I realized companies have a lot of influence. For me, it’s always been about impact.

On the agency side, you have a greater amount of power to drive change. And agencies have to use that.

PRN: So, for you, PR agencies can be greater change agents?

Resler: At a company, they hire you and they’re always happy to have you and listen to your opinions. And, this is not limited to communication, but companies usually also go to third parties and outsiders for advice. We’re always curious about other people’s opinions. And we are sometimes more apt to listen to them.

So, I feel on the agency side, companies who are engaging with you, they’re saying, ‘We want to hear what you have to say.’ They might not always take your opinion, but they’re curious about your guidance. Versus when you’re inside [at a company], you have to convince them of your opinions.    

Do ESG First, Talk About it Later

PRN: And your job now?

Resler: It’s beyond communicating. It’s not just to advise companies about how to tell their [ESG] story, but it’s about how they do [ESG], and then it’s how do we talk about it.

So, what should [a company] be doing on packaging? On human rights? And then, how do we talk about it?

But, it’s not just the talking; it’s the doing as well…that’s why I went to the agency side. Because I could help so many more organizations be better. When I’m at the playground with my kids and people ask what I do, I say, ‘I help companies be better.’ That’s my job.

PRN: Let’s talk about making companies better. What will we see in the next few months from you and your team?

Resler: I think you’re going to see us taking a bolder position on thought leadership…you’re going to see some of our clients coming out with bigger announcements and commitments and new ways of doing things.

And we’re hiring. I’m especially looking for people who bring a depth of expertise across sustainability, human rights, socially responsible supply chains, DE&I. We want you to bring some things to the table [in terms of expertise in these areas] so we can make sure companies are [handling ESG] with purpose, intent and authentically.

PRN: Another scenario: A small communication team with limited resources. But the CEO wants to make an ESG effort. What’s your advice?

Resler: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go to your network; talk to your peers. This is not a competitive space. People are happy to help you.

Two, find those third-party organizations that are addressing your issues. So, if you’re a brand, start reading sites and publications that deal with sustainable brands. See what people are doing in the space. What’s important? Start learning. It doesn’t cost you anything but time.

Last, get yourself a buddy. Find someone who is willing to take the time to help you. You’d be surprised how much people care about companies and organizations doing better. They are flexible. And stop assuming. Don’t assume something’s too expensive or insurmountable. You never know until you try.

Contact: [email protected]