Sustainability reports are an important tool in a CFO’s strategic communications arsenal that helps attract employees, customers, and capital
By Leigh Ann Johnston for CFO Magazine
Every year, companies spend tens of thousands of both dollars and hours collecting and verifying hundreds of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data points to produce thoughtful and beautiful sustainability reports. Writers and copy editors burn the midnight oil to create the ideal narrative on progress and opportunities, weaving together a story aligned with their company’s business strategy and brand. Graphic designers use their creativity to design charts, infographics, and layouts that make reports both engaging and compelling.
Sadly, even after all this effort, many companies fail to generate the stakeholder interest or response they hoped for. Why? Because the “Field of Dreams” strategy — if you build it, they will come — doesn’t work in a world of information overload. Determining who you want to reach and how you will engage your target audiences is the very foundation of an effective sustainability report. The communications plan for your report should not be an afterthought; it should be developed in concert with the content creation of your report. The content will inform the communications strategy, and conversely, your communications strategy will inform the content you choose to include and highlight.
A thoughtful, strategic communications plan will elevate attention and engagement with your sustainability report broadly and foster conversations with your key stakeholders specifically.
Here are five recommendations for driving stakeholder engagement around your sustainability report both when it’s issued and throughout the year.
1. Identify Target Audiences for Communication
Companies historically have shared their sustainability reports with a limited group of stakeholders such as investors, top customers, employees, non-government organizations, and the media. The growing importance of sustainability, however, has generated interest from a broader audience. For example, according to the Ipsos Global Trends 2021 report, 66% of surveyed U.S. respondents tend to buy brands that reflect their values. With this statistic in mind, consider sharing your report with a broader group of stakeholders including consumers, regulators, community leaders, state and local representatives, trade associations, influencers, ESG rating and ranking agencies, and stock exchanges.
2. Deliver Memorable Takeaways
In addition to having a theme that helps tie all of the information in the report together, identify three to five key takeaways that align with what your primary stakeholders care about. Most sustainability reports are awash in data of all kinds: metrics, goals, achievements, milestones, partnerships, lists of activities, awards, and more. Including all these elements is important as different stakeholders have different priorities. The challenge is selecting the most important and relevant messages at this point in time that demonstrates how your company is advancing its overall sustainability journey. Once identified, these key takeaways should be prominently and consistently highlighted in all related communications from your investor presentation to your customer newsletters.
3. Determine How You’ll Reach Target Stakeholders
Typically, companies announce the publication of a new sustainability report by issuing a press release. That is a great idea, however, there are many other ways to amplify the news and to meet your stakeholders in the communication channels they use. Make sure your report is prominently featured on the homepage of your website as well as your investor relations page. Also consider social media, employee emails, intranet, tradeshow materials, and other communications channels along with media interviews to help reach a broader group of stakeholders.
4. Make the Most of Launch Day
Plan carefully and orchestrate the launch date of your sustainability report. You may want to time the release around another event that drives traffic to your website. For example, issuing the report shortly before a quarterly earnings announcement would allow you to showcase your report to investors who regularly visit your investor relations page. Develop a detailed timeline of activities for launch day and assign responsibility for each task. Prepare a press release, social media posts, and an announcement to employees in advance of releasing your report. Include other corporate teams such as sales and public affairs in your launch day process to ensure your sustainability report finds its way to your stakeholder audiences.
5. Plan for Communications Launch Date and Beyond
Launch day is an important springboard and most media engagement and other communications activities typically occur within the following 60 days. That said, it’s a missed opportunity to stop communicating about sustainability after that initial time period. Think of your report as a treasure trove of highlights, data, recognitions, and other nuggets that can be repackaged to foster ongoing engagement long after launch day.
- Public company CEOs or CFOs should send personal notes to top holders (active and passive) and sell-side analysts sharing the new sustainability report.
- Look into expanding your investor base by participating in the many sustainability and ESG-dedicated conferences hosted by sell-side firms.
- Consider hosting a roadshow with passive investors and ESG/sustainability dedicated investors after publishing your sustainability report. This could be a series of one-on-one or small group meetings
- Take every opportunity with quarterly earnings calls, investor presentations, and your website to reinforce your commitment to sustainability and ESG efforts throughout the year.
- Introduce webinars, lunch and learns, and town hall meetings to share your sustainability goals, key messages, and progress with employees. Think of your employees as sustainability ambassadors and teach them how to talk about your efforts.
- Establish sustainability teams to increase employee engagement in thinking about solutions for workplace environmental and social opportunities.
- All Audiences
- Develop a short fact sheet (1-4 pages) highlighting your key sustainability messages, goals, and where to go for more information.
- Create videos or a video series and infographics from the content of your report to humanize your ESG program and draw attention to key messages on your website and social media channels.
- Apply for ESG awards such as Corporate Secretary’s annual Corporate Governance Awards, Corporate Register’s Corporate Reporting awards, and the National Association of Corporate Director’s annual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Awards.
- Issue a press release when you are recognized for your sustainability efforts by being added to a list or an index, such as Newsweek’s Most Responsible Companies or the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, or for outstanding achievement in a particular area, such as gender equality.
- Participate in media interviews, speaking engagements, and podcasts to amplify your sustainability progress and achievements.
- Join relevant sustainability forums such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and online communities to participate in discussions and offer your thoughts and perspectives on emerging environmental and social trends.
- Identify content in your sustainability report that can be repurposed to support environmental and social causes that are important to your company such as National Employee Appreciation Day, Black History Month, International Women’s Day, Earth Day, Hispanic Heritage Month, World Water Day, Pride Month, Zero Emissions Day, among others.
As with any significant business investment, there should be an ROI on all sustainability and ESG communications. Rather than viewing your sustainability report as “a one-and-done,” consider making it an important tool in your strategic communications arsenal that helps attract employees, customers, partners, and capital. A thoughtful and well-organized approach to formulating a communications strategy is key to achieving that ROI.
Leigh Ann Johnston is Senior Vice President, Head of Sustainability of Financial Profiles.