ESG Impact Must Be Central to Brand Reputation to Withstand Shifting Cultural Landscapes

ESG environmental social governance investment business concept. woman uses a computer to analyze ESG data. ESG icons pop up on virtual screen in business sustainability investment strategy concept.

As social issues like diversity and climate change continue to dominate national headlines, organizations trying to establish their environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives are feeling pressured to come up with answers about their social impact while navigating a landscape that seems to be in a constant state of cultural and political flux.

Historically, ESG has been discussed in the context of financial risk management, tucked into investor presentations and corporate annual reports for shareholders. Over the past couple of years, we have undergone a cultural shift that has brought ESG to the forefront of collective societal relevance, with the acronym moving from earnings report calls to front page political news coverage ahead of an election year.

ESG’s fast and furious entrance into our zeitgeist has demanded the attention of business leaders. The appetite for social impact and ESG thought leadership has increased, and powerful corporate voices are chiming in.

Proprietary data from The Bliss Group’s Executive Signals Platform showed a staggering 227% increase in social media engagement on ESG topics from the first to second half of 2022.

Almost 70% of CEOs and CFOs in the investing space engaged with diversity, equity and inclusion-related content last year. Another analysis showed the 83% of the C-suite executives discussing ESG are CEOs.

So, what does this mean for communicators? Social impact has become an important pillar of brand reputation management, and communicators play an important role in establishing narratives that not only align ESG with corporate purpose, but also outlast our culture’s current focus on ESG.

Now is the time to put a stake in the ground with authenticity. Any approach to ESG communications must be about impact and should be genuine to the organization’s mission, getting to the heart of why that company exists in the world.

Building an authentic narrative in which organizations and their target audiences alike can feel confident comes down to leveraging up-to-date data and highlighting long-term impacts.

Depend on Data

Transparency and accountability have become central to the ESG and social impact debate.

Greenwashing—the practice of promoting inaccurate claims about a company’s environmental impact to boost brand reputation—has become all too common in the absence of clearly defined regulations. Equally rampant is the inverse of greenwashing, known as green hushing, in which companies downplay or remain silent about their sustainability goals to avoid scrutiny or ruffled feathers.

Leaning on timely data is the best way to ensure messaging remains engaging, accurate and, most of all, useful. By frequently collecting and analyzing data, organizations can identify the narratives that speak to the intersection of their corporate purpose and social impact, while also building a strong foundation for ESG-related communications.

Limelight the Long-Term

Too often, companies fall into the trap of responding to the political arguments ESG has been tied to or release reactive statements prompted by the latest social “reckoning.”

The more effective way to build an impact-oriented brand and make it matter to the right audiences is to focus on the long-term benefits. Attention spans are shorter than ever. By clearly connecting social impact initiatives with long lasting outcomes for the humans you serve, communicators can reach and influence the intended people, while taking some of the focus away from emotional debates fueled by political agendas.

When predicting long-term results seems unfeasible, turn back to your data and use it to project what might happen in the future. If you can clearly explain the reasoning backed by numbers, educated guesses about long-term impacts can still generate excitement and support for a company’s core purpose, as well as the initiatives that come along with it.

Of course, the cultural pendulum is likely to swing in another direction in the future, but what isn’t going away is the relevance of social impact to bottom lines. Savvy communicators will hang their hats on building their storytelling around data and long-term impacts to navigate the shifting landscape and adapt to cultural swings in the issues their audiences care about.

Megan Tuck is Senior Vice President and head of the Bliss Impact specialty group at The Bliss Group.