How to get started on ESG communications

Go back to basics to make environmental, social and governance work integral to your organizational communications.

Environmental, Social and Governance can look like a giant jumble of numbers and jargon. There are plenty of ways to get lost in that forest.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Amid surging interest in ESG, many communicators are flummoxed at making the topic an essential part of their company’s messages. To put it bluntly, is a 79-page PDF that few people will read the best we can do?

We can do better. It starts with … getting started. Yet some “How to Get Started” guides are so loaded with lingo you need the “How to Get Started Guide to the How to Get Started Guide.” The last step in these multistep instructions is something like, “Inform stakeholders through a multi-channel approach.” Gee, thanks.

Our approach is inspired by a saying attributed to someone with inspiring ideals, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase,” he said. “Just take the first step.”

Our more mundane approach goes back to basics. If you want to get started on ESG, start with the Three Rs: Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic.

1. Reading. Start reading good ESG stories. Madeleine L’Engle, the author of “A Wrinkle in Time,” once said, “You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader.”

Here’s a recent story in Fast Company that caught my eye: There’s a simple fix for emissions in cow’s burps: Just give them a little seaweed.”

That’s a headline that attracts interest because it’s funny. Beneath the hed is a blurb (newspapers call it a drophed) that explains why we care: “One dairy cow burps the same amount of emissions as a car. Seaweed cut it in half.”

Holy cow!

It’s not a perfect story, but it got off to a strong start.

Reading gives you a model, a vision of how you want your own ESG stories to read. And if you want to pitch a story to the Wall Street Journal, you need to know the ingredients they want. If the stories are in your industry, so much the better. But they don’t need to be.

2. ’Riting. As you are reading, pay attention to what makes the story good. There is much to consider, and we’ve developed a nine-point dashboard for evaluating ESG stories. Big picture: We aim for stories that feature humans and that capture emotion. Consider “Business Schools Teaching Sustainability Want to Go Green,” published by Bloomberg in March. It starts with this anecdote:

Caroline James says if she’d been told a few years ago that she’d be an MBA candidate right now, “I would have said: ‘Absolutely not.’” Back in 2014, as an undergraduate studying political science and government, she was arrested in Washington, D.C., while protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline. She was more focused on environmentalism than capitalism.

But after a stint in consulting, James, 28, applied to the Yale School of Management. She wanted to understand more about how the corporate world works—so she could fix it. The school’s sustainability club was also a big draw, as was its tie-up with the university’s School of Environment.

The anecdote offers telling details about James’ background — her major, the pipeline protest — and an adamant quote. Her surprised reaction captures the irony of the story: the citadels of number-crunching quants are attracting a bunch of do-gooders.

You may be unlikely to write a story about B-schools. But everyone presented with the chance to write a feature story can remember the pipeline-protesting MBA candidate.

3. ’Rithmetic. Learn how numbers can help tell a story. ESG is data-driven, but data and good storytelling are not contradictory. The data can provide the structure for your stories, showing your audiences what you’re doing, not just telling them.

As you read more good ESG stories, you’ll see how numbers should be used, sparingly but strongly.

Start by listening.

“Engaging with a range of people from within the business and outside of it will help deepen your understanding of what you need to know, how you might best gather the data, and what the data is telling you,” according to Embedding Project, an ESG research group in “Getting Started on Your ESG Journey in 7 Steps.”

Keep in mind Dr. King, as well as the teaching of the ancient philosopher Lao-Tzu: An ESG journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Tom Corfman is an attorney and senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, where he leads the ESG practice.  Schedule a call with Tom to learn how we can help you get started with ESG. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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