Time and time again, we have all seen examples of companies (and, in some cases, governments) seemingly getting their wires crossed, releasing contradictory statements, and generally making a bit of a mess of their external comms. Whether you’re a consumer or a pension scheme trustee, no one likes being told one thing one day, and then another thing the next without good reason.
If speed isn’t everything, what is?
Anyone who has ever been media trained by me (and there are a few of you!) will know that I always stress the importance of preparation. And why should communications on a company scale be any different? The same pitfalls that apply to an individual not preparing ahead of a media engagement exist for companies, albeit on a far larger scale.
One criticism I often have of business’ communications practices is that it is often clear various channels are not aligned. Haven’t we all seen instances of a CEO being critical of a certain asset class in the media, while the business has promoted that very same asset class in ads splashed across the internet? Or perhaps a fund manager reassuring the media that all is well, only to have their letter to clients leaked to the media which essentially says “Oops. That didn’t exactly go to plan.”
In the grand scheme of things, these examples may be considered by external onlookers as relatively minor, if entirely preventable, snafus. So, what about when something really important happens? Take for example, the war in Ukraine. Asset managers have been keen to fly the ESG flag in recent years, but events over the last few weeks have the industry wondering if it’s been looking at the topic in quite the right way, and whether a significant rethink is required. Here we have seen many businesses hesitating. After all, it isn’t just a matter of greenwashing – people’s lives are at stake, and if a business wants to criticise Russia while simultaneously holding Russian state-backed securities, it’s seen as being hypocritical at best, and immoral at worst.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Businesses that are looking to assert themselves as leaders on a topic often hit the media earlier than others, but those who do so successfully, are only able to by preparing in advance. How could one prepare for a situation such as Ukraine, some might ask? And herein lies the difference between the ESG wheat and chaff.
A true ESG leader does not look at issues of this type in isolation; they have already engaged in a large-scale ESG integration plan which has looked at key issues in great depth, and have a clear understanding of how it affects each of its asset classes and how it conducts business (preferably with case studies available to give tangible examples of what it is doing).
It’s not just about making sure the PR team has shared its key messages or reactive Q&A document with other teams. It’s about driving the agenda from the top, and getting key stakeholders and decision makers in a room regularly to discuss key topics, such as (but not limited to):
- Is the current model of ESG fit for purpose? If not, how does the industry need to change and where does out business fit?
- How can our business be advocates for change, not just withing the scope of our own investments, but more broadly across the industry?
- Where does our business draw the line between engagement and divestment?
More specifically, within these questions there are deeper questions, such as:
- Is what we deem to be “ESG friendly” correct?
- Where are the fatal flaws in the current ESG framework?
- Where are the (next) ESG risks to look out for?
Make no mistake, these are difficult questions to answer. And, crucially, it’s okay to not have all the answers, but it is essential that a business continues to challenge itself – because the media certainly will.
The last two years have brought numerous unforeseen events that, in their own ways, have really shaken society. By no means will these events be the last global shocks that we see in our lifetimes. Businesses must therefore learn from the experiences of navigating these issues or, rightly, risk being questioned and criticised by stakeholders.