ESG and sustainability reports can be challenging projects to get off the ground. With many stakeholders contributing, a vast amount of data to include, and sometimes complex chains of approval to navigate, there are lots of hurdles to overcome. We spoke to Anna Gunning, one of our experienced ESG writers, and Gemma Brown, our Client Services Manager, to discuss how expert writing and project management can keep ESG reporting projects on track.
Establishing a clear process
With a large number of moving parts, and plenty of voices that want to be heard, ensuring that there is a clear process in place will help to facilitate the collaboration between the writer and the business. Part of this is being transparent about where your business currently sits in its ESG journey. Ultimately, you don’t want to run before you can walk.
“Your first sustainability report is like your proof of concept, or your minimum viable product,” says Anna. “You can use that first one to get the business used to engaging in the process of creating an ESG report, and then the second year it becomes easier as you formalise processes.”
The planning process can start out simple. Establishing some key pillars as a foundation for the report can help a business reflect on the story it’s trying to tell. This is something Anna tries to get across in initial interviews. “We often ask, ‘what are the top three to five key messages that you want somebody to remember from this report?’”
Seeking a clear ‘golden thread’ within the report is something that our account management team is equally experienced in. “The stories tying together one business’ journey can be really broad,” says Gemma. “That means that one of our key challenges is helping the client identify the most interesting and relevant of these stories. Once we know what they are, and how they link, we can begin articulating them and giving the report some structure.”
Manage stakeholder input
Whether a company is in the early stages of ESG reporting or has a number of reports under its belt already, stakeholder input remains a universal challenge. When establishing a coherent structure for a report, it’s important to have the right amount of input. Otherwise, Anna says, you risk input overload. “This makes it hard to see the wood from the trees when it comes to structuring the report and prioritising the messaging.”
Although every part of a business might see its contributions to an ESG report as valid and important, a line must be drawn at some point – something that Anna is adept in. “Sometimes it can be difficult for the business to take that step out of the detail and understand the big picture. There are different stakeholders with different agendas that are driving the creation of the report, and there will be different target audiences for the final reports. Whether it’s regulators, investors, customers; they’re all prioritising different things.”
The key is to make sure that the overarching messaging reflects the journey of the wider business. But this needs to be done at the start of the process, not retrospectively. “We make sure to hear from everyone that should be involved from the outset, both in interviews and as part of the content planning stage. Otherwise, we risk getting to a stage where a first or second draft needs rewriting because someone new has been consulted and doesn’t agree with the tone or messaging.”
More than just an environmental focus
ESG reporting is becoming increasingly prominent. Whatever stage your business is at in its ESG journey, there’s plenty to learn from award-winning sustainability communications. One of the most important lessons is to look beyond environmental topics, and have your report say something meaningful about all aspects of ESG.
“Of course, there is now a commercial and regulatory imperative for companies to report on ESG,” Anna says. “But this means that there is a danger that people think of sustainability reporting as being a sort of green carbon neutrality exercise, when actually it is just as important to be communicating to stakeholders about the effectiveness of your social policies and governance. Business resilience, continuity, succession planning; these things are also important aspects to a sustainability story.”
It also makes financial sense to invest in your sustainability story. A compelling ESG report is more than just a business showcase. “It has a knock-on effect,” Gemma says. “Consistent reporting can help a business coherently explain its sustainability messaging over a prolonged period. Not only can this attract investment, but the narrative encourages customers to join that business on their journey towards a more sustainable future – as if they’re in it together.”