Opinion

In Advance of Pivotal Elections, Highlight the G in ESG

By Lindsay Singleton
September 14, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

Smart businesses are increasingly releasing their Corporate Social Responsibility programs and foundations from internal silos and opening paths to engagement with their government relations and communications teams. The brand narratives resulting from this interaction not only generate positive shareholder results, they also create more impactful relationship-building with key policymakers. Companies at the top of their game tailor their storytelling to multiple audiences and occasions, including major political actors and moments.

As Washington gets closer every day to a pivotal election that could see a change in administration and political party dominance, softening the ground now with this kind of dynamic communication has never been more important.

Company leadership is sometimes hesitant to broadcast social good efforts based on the belief that telling the company’s CSR story could come across as inauthentic. As more and more companies build their brands based on a halo-making origin story, though, businesses that don’t tell their social good stories will simply fall behind. When it comes to the political audience, which can change every two to four years, the hesitancy to communicate along Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance lines reduces influence and can ultimately leave businesses without allies when they are most needed.

Simply put: Without a strategy to communicate social good work to policymakers, government relations efforts are missing a unique opportunity. In times of political uncertainty, planning ahead to communicate this work is key.

There are multiple ways for companies to approach this challenge. Increased internal collaboration across government relations and communications teams is a crucial first step, because it will incorporate a combination of district and issue-focused social impacts into their strategies. A deep dive into a brand’s social good can reveal even more opportunities for communicating with a myriad of stakeholders and winning not only temporary support on an issue, but building relationships with new long-term alliances. Additionally, there is room here to work smarter, not harder, bringing the social impact work that bridges party affiliation into the national and political conversations, as well as making friends with a broader set of stakeholders.

Specifically, strategies incorporating social good should not focus on just building relationships with Democrats alone (although strategically minded companies are already thinking through their plans should November usher in a change in administration). While it’s easy to assume that only Democrats care about these positive stories, research shows that Republicans care, as well; however, their issues of concern are sometimes different. For instance, while Democrats might respond to messaging focused on environmental corporate give-back, Republicans may be more inclined to appreciate efforts that support veterans, part of the social component of ESG.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are also issues that resonate with leaders and voters on both sides of the aisle. These include, but are not limited to, efforts related to disaster response, partnerships with local charities and, importantly, a number of issues under the corporate governance category of ESG. Governance typically refers to a company’s leadership structure and how it approaches issues like diversity and inclusion. Beyond creating opportunity for companies to engage with voters and policymakers on issues that resonate with both sides of the aisle, these initiatives also create opportunity at the investment level.

According to research from MSCI, good corporate governance benefits short-term earnings because of its relationship to short-term risk, whereas the E and S impacts on earnings are much longer term (i.e. climate threats). The impacts of the one-year time horizon for G on financial valuations are especially relevant to any government relations strategy, since short-term halo effects can serve as powerful introductions and first impressions with lawmakers facing their own short-term political cycles. They can also be useful since they are less tied to specific locations than their E and S counterparts, meaning they can help attract allies across the United States, not only across the aisle.

As election season continues its crescendo toward November, smart companies and their government relations strategists should be thinking now about how they will approach the new Congress, and possibly a new White House. Communications that lean into governance efforts now can help hedge against whatever upheaval we may see in November and give brands a running start toward their post-election education efforts.

 

Lindsay Singleton is the managing director of ROKK Solutions, a D.C.-based bipartisan political communications firm, where she chairs the company’s Social Good practice; Ms. Singleton advises Fortune 500 companies and trade associations on ESG communications and develops engagement strategies for clients at the national and local levels. 

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