ESG communications: insights & lessons from PRDecoded 2022

The buzz around ESG communications is getting louder. 

In the past few weeks alone, Axios published two newsletters focused on the complicated exercise communicators have in building consumer awareness of what “ESG” means, let alone what their companies are doing about it. A CNBC survey revealed the tension between companies’ public declarations of ESG support and their internal philosophy on ESG management. And PRWeek held its annual purpose-focused conference for communicators, PRDecoded.  

CCOs and leaders in sustainability, CSR, and DE&I convened for two days last week to discuss how brands can better craft and promote a narrative about their purpose. Members of Memo’s Insights Team joined to share new readership trends around environmental and climate issues. 

Here are our takeaways from the event + the team’s own findings on ESG-related readership trends.

To learn more about how accurate readership can uncover the real impact of your ESG comms activities and help you make smarter decisions, check out Memo’s approach to comms measurement.

Research summary: readership trends on environmental news 

Memo’s Insights team was on site at PRDecoded to share an abridged report that analyzed readership (unique visitors to an article) on thousands of articles about environmental issues published in Q3 2022. Here are three of the trends and opportunities they identified:

Trend #1: Wired and Vox are under-the-radar outlets for ESG themes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, large national newspapers were the top-read outlets on environmental news over this time. 

But outlets that appeal to socially-minded readers, such as Wired and Vox, see high average readership. They publish fewer articles on the topic, but the articles they do publish get higher traffic than articles on sites with higher UVMs. (These are what we call  “hidden gem” publications, and identifying them for an industry or theme can help Comms teams prioritize media relations.)

Trend #2: Deforestation is trending in news readership. 

Both the most-covered and most-read subtopic over this was “climate action” – news about climate change, carbon footprints, emissions goals, etc. 

Among the other subtopics, “sustainability” was covered more, but  “deforestation” had higher readership. Following the Covid-19 pandemic and recent monkeypox outbreaks, there’s increased awareness of and interest in the impact of deforestation on pathogen transmission. For companies addressing deforestation specifically, now is a great time to grow awareness of these initiatives. 

Trend #3: Earned media helps brands protect their reputations as ESG-minded companies

In addition to publications and subtopics, we also analyzed readership on the brands featured in environmental news. One retailer, for example, received negative coverage about its carbon footprint, but this was outweighed by readership on positive coverage on its efforts to reduce packaging waste. (This context is why Memo customers monitor readership on crisis news cycles in addition to proactive campaigns.)

PRDecoded summary: the biggest takeaways on communicating purpose

Speakers at PRWeek’s annual purpose-focused conference addressed topics ranging from climate action to diversity to building trust. Here were some common threads:

Takeaway #1: Authenticity is table stakes for successful ESG communications

Authenticity in intent first, message second was a recurring theme among speakers, including McDonald’s Sr. Director of Global Brand Communications Molly McKenna, who advised against latching onto passing fads where brands can’t play a meaningful role.

Leaders from BCW similarly warned against “purpose washing,” or expressing public support for a cause without the underlying action to back it up. (Speaking of, shout out to PRWeek for partnering with GENYOUth to sponsor a breakfast cart that will serve nearly 100,000 meals annually to Chicago students.) 

Such authenticity is essential if brands want to build and maintain trust at a time when misinformation is so pervasive. “Actions speak louder than words,” noted Mars VP of Corporate Affairs Kristen Campos.

Takeaway #2: Employees are a key stakeholder – and not just for internal comms 

Executives from UPS set the tone when they kicked off the conference sharing their communications team’s approach to crafting its public-facing purpose statement: they surveyed employees internally to see what excites them about UPS. (The result: “Moving our world forward by delivering what matters.”) 

When it comes to communicating purpose, Artealia Gilliard, Ford’s Sr. Manager of Environmental Leadership and Sustainability Communications, noted that the auto company starts with its employees first to build advocacy from the inside out.

At a time when internal comms can quickly become external comms, organizations are rethinking strategies for listening to employee feedback, responding to demands to address current events such as racial justice and gun control, and mitigating against internal issues playing out in the public sphere. A major theme of the internal-communications focused panel “Empowering Employees” was the function’s increased collaboration – if not outright merging – with external communications groups.

Takeaway #3: Purpose is the vision, communicating it is an art, and data is a guide

Whether it’s using surveys to get a pulse check on how its purpose is connecting with its employees (Allstate), or social listening to understand what followers care about (McDonald’s), communications teams are leaning on data for guidance in crafting and refining purpose messaging.

This is not to say that data defines a brand’s purpose. Rather, data helps inform whether messages are resonating with stakeholders at different places in the customer/employee journey, as noted on a panel between Edelman advisors and Tupperware VP of Global Communications & PR Cameron Klaus. 

Of course, not everything can be captured in numbers. As Walgreens CCO Aaron Radelet put it, when it comes to communicating purpose, it’s about how people feel about you, not what they know about you.”

Our team’s two cents: measurement on ESG communications is still in its nascency. While there are numerous tools that can mine data from owned channels, social followers, and publicly available search trends, they’re missing a key piece of the puzzle. Purpose is more than a message – two days of programming made that clear. It’s the actions brands take that build toward a vision, actions that get dissected every day in the press. 

Earned media is a major conduit for a brand’s narrative, and it’s finally measurable. We work with Comms teams on the forefront of analyzing earned readership data to understand, build, and protect their narratives. It’s been encouraging over the past couple of years to see the growth in ESG communications measurement specifically, a reflection we hope of more purposeful business.

To learn more about how accurate readership can uncover real impact of your ESG comms activities and help you make smarter decisions, check out Memo’s approach to comms measurement.

3 graphs that illustrate the problem with PR impressions

“We know impressions are inaccurate, but at least they’re directionally correct.”
“We know impressions are inaccurate, but we divide them to be more realistic.”
“We know impressions are inaccurate, but no one is forcing us to change.”

“We know impressions are inaccurate, but.” It’s a common and persistent refrain in the PR industry. Years of having no alternative metrics created a status quo of measuring the potential, rather than the actual.

Unfortunately, impressions are not directionally correct at the article level: highly-trafficked outlets don’t always get higher article readership (i.e. unique visitors to an article page) than lower-traffic outlets. And dividing monthly impressions by 7 or 30 days is not a realistic assessment of how content performs: on the same day in the same publication, one article can get one million readers, another one thousand. 

You might say Memo has a refrain of its own: “Impressions are not just inaccurate, they’re misleading.” We’ve published data that shows how impressions distort share of voice and how impressions overlook important outlets. But mechanically, why is this?

Our team analyzes readership data every day. We want to illustrate exactly why impressions obscure the insights that are so glaringly obvious with readership. 

Actual readership among a publication’s articles is highly variable

We pulled an entire month’s worth of content published on an outlet that receives roughly 30 million unique monthly visitors. Each box represents an article, and the size of the box represents that article’s readership, i.e. the number of unique visitors to the article in the first 7 days of publication.

Each of the approximately 800 boxes is a single article published in August 2022 on the same publication. The size of each box represents that article’s readership.

The most-read article that month received over 2000x more visitors than the least-read article. 

There is brand coverage that completely hit it out of the park, and there is coverage that could benefit from further amplification. 

There are article topics that tend to fall on the upper left corner of that graph, and topics that tend to fall on the lower right corner.

There are takedown pieces that blew up, and takedowns that barely made a splash.

Article-level readership provides a wealth of information about earned media performance and strategy. So what about impressions?

Impressions (wrongly) report that every article performs the same

We can visualize the same ~800 articles with potential impressions instead of actual readership. This is what we see:

Each of the approximately 800 boxes is a single article published in August 2022 on the same publication. The size of each box represents that article’s potential reach (aka impressions or UVMs).

Did we get a lot of eyeballs on our product press? Does this outlet get high readership on our industry’s news? Is this negative story worth a spokesperson response? Potential reach doesn’t help us answer any of these questions, but readership does.

It’s the difference between a clippings report where every article has the same performance metric (left) versus a readership report where you know exactly how many people saw the coverage (right):

Sure, the report that tallies up to 225,000,000 potential impressions looks impressive. But with 258 million adults in the US, business leaders know it’s a bogus figure.

Lower UVM publications can get more article readership than higher UVM publications

The monthly unique visitors on a site can be a helpful proxy for publisher authority when, for example, trying to understand the landscape or build an initial media list. But impressions are a horrible proxy for article performance, even across different publications. 

Everyday we see outlets with relatively low monthly visitors publish articles that receive higher readership than content on relatively high-traffic outlets. (A Memo report further examines this trend.)

In fact, one of the first things new Memo users say is “I can’t believe how many people read our placement on [insert niche outlet].” 

To illustrate, here is the same publication visualized above next to a second publication with approximately 75 million UVMs:

Each of the approximately 800 blue boxes is an article published in August 2022 on a publication with 30 million UVMs. Each of the approximately 1,300 purple boxes is an article on a publication with 75 million UVMs. The size of each box represents that article’s readership.

The higher-UVM outlet published the most-read articles among the two publications. But there are hundreds of articles on the lower-UVM outlet that received more readership than content on the higher-UVM outlet. 

We’ve now illustrated that impressions are 1) not directionally correct, and 2) not a realistic assessment of article performance, no matter how you slice them. 

Still, if no one is forcing the issue, why change?

Comms has become more entwined with marketing and business strategy. Its measurement will be too.

One of the biggest PR measurement trends that emerged this year was that Communications teams are working more closely with Marketing and other business functions. With this seat at the table, however, comes expectations of more rigorous measurement. 

Our team has worked with some of the earliest adopters of readership data. The Comms groups that embraced this change a year or two ago are already operating at a different level. They’re more strategic with media relations. They’re better equipped to handle crisis stories. They’re giving earned media its due credit in the broader marketing mix. 

No longer misled by the false impression (pardon our pun) that content performs uniformly on a publication, they’re making better business decisions.

3 ways brands can use Macro Readership Trends to guide PR strategy

How does our readership compare to other news stories? What events might be drawing attention to (or diverting attention away from) our press? Are there trending topics we should leverage in campaigns?

These were the questions from customers that prompted our team to launch Memo’s first-ever Macro Readership Trends report, a broad look at the stories driving news readership each quarter, with deep-dives into the most impactful articles, outlets, and reporters for each news cycle.

Topics analyzed in Q1 2022 range from tentpole events like the Super Bowl and Oscars, to evolving themes like the future of work and the US economy. As newsworthy stories broke, our team added them to the list to build out an analysis of 15 widely-read topics from January through March across a representative sample of 77 national, lifestyle, business, and sports outlets.* 

Below we highlight some learnings from last quarter’s Macro Readership Trends report and go over three ways PR teams can action this intel. This report is available to all Memo customers, and to anyone who books a demo of Memo’s readership tracking and insights platform.

Use Case #1: Spot the next wave of readership for upcoming PR campaigns

Readership on the topic of inflation was accelerating by the end of March 2022, with the average readership on an article increasing 150% from March 1 to March 31.

Because a large part of this coverage included rising gas prices, one Memo customer proposed incorporating inflation into how it positioned its environmental initiatives. 

Pegging their company’s corporate ESG announcement to a data-proven popular topic in the sustainability sphere could boost interest in what can often be a notoriously difficult subject for brands to garner readership on. 

Use Case #2: Time campaigns for recurring events around peak readership

Coverage of 2022’s NFL playoffs and Super Bowl peaked 12 days before the big game, on February 1. While total readership peaked on this day too, we found that average readership peaked on articles published the day after the Super Bowl, February 14.

High reader interest relative to the number of articles published right after game day presents a huge opportunity next year for brands to roll out final pieces of Super Bowl-related campaign content. Imagine a surprise epilogue on the Budweiser Clydesdale’s annual journey that gets released Monday, when millions of people are actively searching for articles on “Super Bowl ads.”

Understanding how readership plays out over the course of a recurring event – and optimizing campaign timing around days with diminishing article volume but sustained reader interest – can give brands a leg up in the race for attention.

Use Case #3: Get outlet and reporter readership intel from relevant news cycles

The future of work has been an ongoing theme in pandemic- and business-related coverage; our team compiled several Insights reports over the past year to help brands monitor readership trends for their own thought leadership in the space. 

Since the Macro Readership Trends report breaks out the top publications and journalists within each topic tracked, PR teams can see the sources driving readership around WFH policy announcements, the Great Resignation, workplace DE&I, and more – and prioritize media outreach accordingly.

The next quarter’s report is already well underway and will include readership trends on the Grammy Awards, Elon Musk’s Twitter bid, and the Metaverse. Book a demo to receive a copy of the most recent report, and learn more about brand-specific and industry-wide readership intelligence on Memo.


Macro Readership Trends methodology: Memo monitored media coverage of anticipated news cycles (e.g. the Super Bowl, the Oscars), ongoing stories (Covid, inflation, future of work), and notable events (the federal government distributing Covid test kits, celebrity deaths). Queries were built to ensure articles had a strong focus on the topic. Readership for all articles was tracked for the first seven days of publication. Articles were monitored across the same 77 national, business, lifestyle, and sports outlets for all topics.