How Guilty Is The PR Industry For Corporations’ Lacklustre Attitude To ESG?

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In the days leading to the COP 28 and weeks after, the media will be pervaded with buzzwords like climate change, net zero and as has been the case with previous editions, the majority of the blame will be directed at governments and only a tiny fraction at corporate organisations. Arguably, this is the reason for the obvious disinterest corporate bodies have shown in matters relating to climate change and the role they can play in the net zero agenda. The second, and perhaps the biggest reason- how PR is encouraging this lack of interest- is what I hope to discuss in this article.

In 1967 when Edward Bernays began what became Public Relations as we now know it, his intention was merely to mediate between a labour union and the government. Little did he know that, years after, his gesture would spiral into a billion-dollar industry, a source of income for millions of practitioners and, very importantly, a viable tool that has brought countless of businesses closer to their audience and, ultimately, helped them become profitable.

Needless to say, Public Relations (PR) agencies, through well informed insights, and strategic recommendations, have steered these companies to prominence, amplifying visibility, driving profits, and in some cases, helping them achieve market dominance. This singular fact underscores how critical the industry is to the success of the business/corporate world and the players in it. If that then is the case, one wonders why an industry so influential has constantly maintained a silent position on the issue of how involved corporations should be in sustainability and the SDGs. This is evident in the glaring absence of a resounding call for sustainability within the narratives crafted by PR agencies for corporate organisations. Most agencies, at best, pad their strategic communication recommendations with sustainability when in fact, they should be leading with it.

While I agree that the primary focus of PR and the agencies is to increase the popularity, profitability and market share of their clients, in the face of the global environmental and social crisis, that reason is no longer enough. For context, the Guardian reported recently that, since 1988, only 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to this, only 25 corporations and state-owned organisations were found to be responsible for over 50% of global industrial emissions during the same time period. What is even more shocking is that, despite how clear who the guilty party is, there seems to have been a consistent, deliberate attempt to blame everyone else but corporations, including innocent consumers who are inundated with messages about ‘choosing green’ and other costly lifestyle amendments on a daily basis.

I’m hopeful that PR agencies follow the proceedings in Dubai and are spurred to start having these conversations with their clients as soon as possible. Here are some of the ways to make this happen.

Perhaps the most immediate step is to encourage clients to be more transparent in the reporting of their sustainability efforts. Greenwashing remains one of the biggest challenges in the race towards net zero. Despite the efforts of the Competition and Markets Authority to discourage this practice with the Green Code, several corporate establishments continue to publish exaggerated reports of their activities.

PR practitioners must help clients uphold the concept of transparency by adopting an open and authentic approach when reporting their sustainability efforts, rather than signing off and pitching their verbose reports to journalists and drafting holding statements in anticipation of crisis. Relaying authentic stories backed with reliable evidence is the hallmark of the PR practice, and such gesture must be extended to sustainability reporting in order to further encourage corporate involvement.

Unarguably, PR’s greatest strength is its ability to change narratives and set agenda, and this is another way agencies and practitioners can demonstrate commitment to CSR and Sustainability. We need to redefine the concept of ‘successful businesses’ and include environmental consciousness to the list of criteria along with financial metrics, market domination and corporate prosperity. This can be achieved by strategically placing sustainability into clients’ brand stories, recommending environmentally friendly initiatives, community engagement and strategically amplifying results to ultimately link companies’ financial success to their commitment to ESG.

The rapidly escalating climate crisis presents an opportunity for another of PR’s strong points – forging strategic partnerships – to come into play. PR agencies can employ their expertise to foster collaboration between their clients and NGOs, SDG advocates and other relevant stakeholders to implement support for sustainability initiatives. In order to ensure that not only the corporations but also their stakeholders are engaged, PR agencies can leverage design strategies to engage internal and external stakeholders about sustainability practice. This, for internal audiences could involve creating communication strategies to engage employees in sustainability efforts and building a sense of pride. For external audiences, could involve educating customers and investors about the positive impact of supporting sustainable businesses, which ultimately can lead to increased client loyalty. Talk about a double victory!

As COP28 continues and environmental/social concerns take centre stage, PR professionals must remain aware of the power they wield and the progress it can represent for the race to net zero. We must understand the opportunity or, better put, responsibility we have to guide corporate organizations towards sustainable practices. The good thing is we don’t have to change our song, as this can be achieved by doing our same ol practice of forging alliances, shaping narratives, setting agendas, encouraging transparency, and emphasizing how sustainability can bring about financial benefits. I am not always an optimist, but I strongly believe that this is the opportunity PR practitioners need to prove their worth and that they can become catalysts for change.

About the author

Olamide is a PR, marketing and sustainability communications professional with extensive knowledge and experience across the African and Europe markets.  He is currently an Account Manager with Tangerine PR in Manchester, United Kingdom.

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