October 18th, 2022

ESG communications: insights & lessons from PRDecoded 2022

By the Insights Team

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.

Book a demo today to see what Memo can do for you

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