Hardesh Singh is the Founder / Editor of Sustainability Matters, published by Digital News Asia. He holds a Master in Sustainable Development Management and is currently pursuing a PhD in Sustainable Development at the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development.
The Financial and Mining News was first published in 1884. It helped expose questionable investment schemes and corruption. Four years later, the Financial Times started publishing. Today, financial and business reporting is a major segment within the larger press and media industry.
Now imagine if you were an aspiring journalist back in the late 1800s and wanted to cover the financial sector. There probably weren’t a lot of resources available. You would have had to learn how to read financial statements, analyse profits and losses, follow money trails, and figure out who is siphoning money illegally. The learning curve would have been very steep. Financial information and reports from companies probably didn’t follow specific standards.
I feel like this is where we are now with respect to reporting on ESG and sustainability. Everyone is still grappling with competing standards and frameworks. There is huge information asymmetry which gives some party leverage over others - the perfect setup for greenwashing.
I receive a lot of ESG-related press releases as the Founder / Editor of Sustainability Matters
. We run a fair number of these but also end up declining a significant amount due to the lack of substance beyond catchy headlines. I have been invited to several media briefings and I can tell that many reporters are left to learn on the job all by themselves.
Here are some basic things to keep in mind.
1. It's not all about carbon
A majority of press releases we receive are related to carbon reduction announcements. This should be lauded, but let's also understand the context: Malaysia’s share of global cumulative CO2 emissions is 0.36%
. In layperson terms, cumulatively, we have contributed 0.36% of global emissions since 1750. But more importantly, where are emissions originating from? Our energy sector is responsible for 78% of total emissions, based on Malaysia’s 4th Biennial Update Report to the United Nations. Our energy industries (related to electricity and heat production, petroleum refining, etc) accounted for 50.80% of emissions within this energy sector. The point is that, any significant reduction of emissions must focus on our energy industries transitioning to non-fossil fuel-based energy sources. Those are the only players of real significance. The breakdown can seem confusing, but you may refer to our story here
for more context.
2. Don’t leave out the ‘S’ and ‘G’
Related to the above, we see several pitches from smaller companies that proudly claim to be taking measures to reduce their emissions. This might surprise you, but I would advise these companies to just focus on more consequential aspects of their business. Modern companies tend to be digital in nature and therefore are starting with very low emissions, to begin with. The emissions that they do emit are not really within their control anyway (if Tenaga Nasional is supplying you with energy from a coal plant, there is nothing you can do short of investing in solar power generation). The opportunity for PRs is to instead help craft more compelling stories related to social progress, human capital, and just being good corporate citizens. There is so much more that ails our society than carbon emissions. What are companies doing to ensure decent wages? How committed are they to diversity and inclusion? Do they pay their taxes? Journalists on the other hand should be asking these questions of companies to ensure that we can build a better society for all Malaysians.
3. Go below the fold when addressing SDG Goals
Every company wants to subscribe to any number of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It also looks very compelling to line up some of the SDG logos on corporate websites. The problem starts when you need to sell how exactly you are delivering on such goals. The issue is that few bother to go one level deeper to look at the specific targets related to each goal. We, therefore, see quite often companies claiming to subscribe to certain goals but remain shallow on the specific steps being taken. It makes the company look bad and its PR reps worse. You will stand out more if you can name specific targets rather than just the broad goal. Any forward-looking company can easily say that they subscribe to Goal 5 of the 17 SDGs - Gender Equality. But in the corporate environment, there is only one target, namely 5.5, that addresses providing equal opportunities to women in leadership positions. A company that publicly states its commitment to Target 5.5 will stand head and shoulders over the rest who make general claims about supporting equality. It also provides PRs with specific stories it can pitch, be it interviews with the board of directors or features on their women in leadership positions.
PR practitioners have a role to play in being a line of defence to stop greenwashing and nudging their clients to adopt strategies that will be better aligned with the sustainability agenda. It may be a lot to ask for but consider the damage that you would end up having to deal with should your media counterparts start calling out flawed narratives.
I believe that both PR and media practitioners have a renewed reason for being, and that is to ensure that we transition to a future that is sustainable for everyone.
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