[Editor's Note: As part of the PRNEWS Social Impact Awards April 20, 2022, in Pentagon City, VA, we convened a roundtable of honorees. We discussed a variety of issues, from who should decide which social issues work best for a company, when to communicate a position and how to resuscitate a stagnant ESG effort. The range of views expressed indicates that few hard, fast rules exist in the ESG sphere.
The roundtable participants were: Jazmin Eusébio, diversity, inclusion and belonging senior specialist and senior account executive, Highwire PR; Gigi Garcia Russo, chief innovation and growth officer, Hunter; Andrew Jarrell, chief strategy officer, Group Gordon; Curtis Sparrer, principal and co-founder, Bospar; Jaclyn Tacoronte, managing partner, JMT; and David Vossbrink, communications counsel. Their remarks were lightly edited for space and clarity.]
PRNEWS: What can PR pros do to help a company decide when, and if, to speak out on an issue? Do you recommend a formal process or one where the C-suite alone is responsible for staking out positions?
Curtis Sparrer: The first rule of thought leadership is to lead. That means you will need to act first, before your cohorts.
As a leadership team, we approached the Texas abortion ban like crisis PR. We knew it was an issue and alerted our team to how to address it. We surveyed staff members and discovered some of them were already pricing relocation costs. That gave us our eureka moment to determine we should cover the cost of relocation for anyone who wanted to leave.
We then got consensus across the agency to ensure we all felt committed to take on the issue.
Journalists we briefed ahead of the announcement told us we were brave, which was both a validating and frightening position to be in.
We went through that same process when it came to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.
Jazmin Eusébio: The C-Suite ultimately makes the call, but PR pros, with their antennae finely-tuned to all stakeholders, can lead the process, which also includes legal, marketing, investor relations and public affairs.
PR pros must ensure any statement a company makes directly aligns with its values and is authentic to the brand. Customers know when a brand is only checking a box or joining a bandwagon. So, it’s never smart to issue a general or empty statement.
The PR team is a key steward of those values and therefore must weigh how the position and statement are in alignment, both immediately and for the long term. The team also must consider who is affected, such as customers or employees, and what the tradeoffs are for taking a position—or not. And the PR team must say, specifically and concretely, what the company is doing to address the issue.
Gigi Garcia Russo: This comes up quite often, especially as consumers expect brands to not only share their values, but join cultural conversations, have a voice and advocate with them. Companies whose values are engrained in their culture have a much easier time navigating this in the moment, allowing them to act fast or quickly decide not to act at all.
I am a big believer in creating a formal process, having those healthy debates ahead of time, and creating playbooks to guide when and how to speak out on issues that are important to the company, its customers, investors and other stakeholders who matter.
Andrew Jarrell: PR can help keep a company disciplined in making decisions that are aligned with core values. If taking a stance on an issue is consistent with your values, then you should speak up. But you need to be wary of not overstating your commitment. All stakeholders, internal and external, should play a role in determining the company’s values and the issue-areas where it will act.
PRNEWS: That leads to another question, how do you move forward on an issue when there are differing views about it in the company? Say it's a large company. Your employees want to send support to Ukraine, but much of management supports Russia?
Jaclyn Tacoronte: That's a very hard question. Politics, passion and public relations sometimes they stay on the same highway and sometimes they all veer off. Ultimately, with any large organization, if you can put your head down on a pillow at night then you're good. That's my rule of thumb.
But also look at the impact [of your position] in the community. Make sure it's positive. If it's not, you may want to take a couple of steps back and observe. See what your next steps are.
PRNEWS: A rule of thumb is to avoid talking externally about ESG before you’ve done the work. So, how do you know when it’s time to speak about a company’s ESG work?
Andrew Jarrell: You need to be self-aware about the extent and substance of your ESG work before talking about it. If you express support for an issue but have not taken real action, you are opening yourself up to criticism.
It’s also important to think through not only when to communicate, but also through which channels and to whom. If you’ve made significant policy changes or a financial commitment in support of an issue, that’s worthy of sharing with internal and external audiences.
Merely putting out a statement on an issue is probably more relevant for your internal team and appropriate for websites or social channels. At the end of the day, your words and action need to be substantive before you try to get credit for ESG work
David Vossbrink: Step 1: Do the work! Set your policies, articulate your specific goals and actions and budget meaningful resources of leadership, money and staff. Then, do what you’ve promised.
Step 2: After you have actually accomplished something, then you can talk about it. PR stands for performance recognition. Good performance is required for good PR, so deliver results first. Otherwise, it’s just empty blather about ESG.
Gigi Garcia Russo: I disagree with the premise of the question. If ESG is important to a company, it can, and should, start talking about why, setting goals and creating strategies to achieve them, even if those efforts are small at first.
Companies have to start somewhere and establishing ESG as critically important is a great first step in a long journey to evolving as a company that values purpose, its role in society as well as profits.
PRN: How should you align ESG campaigns with company values? How often do you recommend revisiting company values and ESG programs?
Andrew Jarrell: There are a few key questions that will help determine the issue areas that make most sense for your company to be involved in. What are the causes that your employees, clients and other stakeholders care most about? What areas are you already working in? Where can you have the biggest impact? Those questions will empower you to create meaningful purpose rather than just approaching ESG as a checklist. It’s worth revisiting your company values yearly.
PRN: What tips do you have for communicators whose company’s ESG programs seem stagnant?
Curtis Sparrer: I think an all-hands audit is the best thing you can do. I would review your ESG program and ask how these priorities stack up against the current climate. I would ask: what pressing issues do staff care about now? We should take a play from our own PR playbook and ensure our ESG efforts are part of the conversation people actually are interested in having. If there’s no passion for it, then it's likely you need to change with the times.
Jaclyn Tacoronte: Passion is critical. I used to teach a course called Passionate People Get the Best Press. It's the same thing here. Passionate people get the best community communicators. So, you want to make sure you always get the most passionate people on the project. They're going to infiltrate positive ideas. It's like a shot in the arm of new energy and ideas. And always listen to people at the bottom and the top. Both can give you some of the best solutions.
PRN: You are a moderate-sized company with good, but not overwhelming, ESG initiatives. What should you do to prepare for ESG getting even more important than it is today?
David Vossbrink: As PR pros always should, start with research. Find out what’s important to your customers, employees and the communities that are important to your company. Evaluate your ESG programs in that context. That can include surveys, diverse focus groups, getting out in the field and lots of listening.
Do some competitive analysis, too. Consider if you do more of the right thing, and more effectively, will that improve your ability to do better than your competitors, develop and sell your products and recruit and keep talent?
Then with that research, make the business case to management that stronger and more effective ESG programs are ethically appropriate and can help the bottom line. But you can’t overpromise—the results of ESG will require long-term leadership, commitment and investment, along with realistic benchmarks to chart your progress to your goals.
PRNEWS: You're a 1-person communication shop at a small business without ESG programs. How do you start a program?
Jaclyn Tacoronte: You can partner with an existing [social justice group] to start. But make sure its mission works with your company's mission. If you partner with a group that advocates for youth, make sure your company [is interested in] programming for youth. Period. Full stop.
To really understand the interests of your community and staff, ask them. Your staff members are contributing to their community in some way. Find out what they're doing, what they're interested in. That's where you're going to get authenticity and staff who are proactive, who will take charge and say, OK, I'm going to help my business and the community I live in.
If that doesn't work and you're hearing nothing from your staff, you can consider 3 programs you want to start. But, remember, you're a team of one, so don't be careful about being overwhelmed. You can roll out a social program once a year, once a quarter, once a month. It doesn't have to be once a week. Social impact is not about how quick you can check things off a list. Social impact is about impacting a community and the longevity and sustainability. So, take your time.