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  • Adam Harper

Don’t over-egg the ESG message

Updated: Jul 22, 2021


When you've got something to say, it's often better to let the facts do the talking.


Silence is the greatest fear for organisations with something to say. It’s the innate, visceral fear of being forgotten or ignored that strikes to the very core of social creatures like us humans. At the corporate level, an announcement that generates little or no reaction can lead to some very uncomfortable questions for communications teams and advisors. Why does no-one care what we are saying? What are we doing wrong? What are you doing wrong?


Sometimes, though, an adverse reaction is worse than no reaction. A company may believe they have made a breakthrough with a new product or initiative, for example. They go out with fanfare to tell the world, but the world responds by saying: is that all? We were expecting something much bigger, or better, or different. Why are you failing to meet our expectations? Why are you failing?


We were expecting something much bigger, or better, or different. Why are you failing to meet our expectations? Why are you failing?

This dynamic is common with Environmental, Social and Governance initiatives, which is often where organisations run into the greatest expectations and strongest emotions. No sustainability policy satisfies everyone. And it extends to governments, too.


President Biden has re-committed the United States to the Paris Agreement, set a target of reducing emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and is trying to get trillions of dollars of climate-related spending through Congress. It’s a night and day difference from the policies of the previous administration, but it’s not nearly enough for some progressives: a protester with the Sunrise Movement recently held up a placard saying “Biden you coward fight for us.” The perfect has become the enemy of the good.


The perfect has become the enemy of the good.

China recently launched the world’s biggest carbon market – a measure that many see as essential to achieving net zero goals – but the Financial Times cited analysts as saying the effort was “cautious and limited.”


Of course, the right to criticise is a vital and productive freedom. Without it, there is no scrutiny and no progress. And people have always disagreed, even if it feels like opinions have become more distributed to the extreme ends of the spectrum in recent years.


So complaining about a negative reaction is easy, but doesn’t do any good. What does help is understanding why initiatives that should be considered good news get a negative reaction.


There could be a lot of reasons for this, but I’ll focus on one. Too often, hype runs too far ahead of the reality. Organisations believe they can shape the reaction by making extraordinary claims, like “this is the most comprehensive climate initiative in our industry, heralding a new era of sustainable banking/asset management/insurance.” Statements like this can indeed shape perceptions, but often not in the way intended. While audacious claims may be true in some senses, they tend to invite intense scrutiny, which almost inevitably leads to disappointment and then a hostile reaction.


While audacious claims may be true in some senses, they tend to invite intense scrutiny, which almost inevitably leads to disappointment.

So our advice to any organisation with an ESG story to tell is very old-fashioned: don’t over-egg the pudding. As a general rule, make sure that your proof points – the facts that support your claims – are stronger than the claims themselves. Keep the superlatives to a minimum.


This may not sound much like PR, but is none the worse for that. Letting the facts speak for themselves is often a better approach to building a sustainable reputation in an age of extreme reactions.


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