By Andrea Jastrebski

Environmental, social and governance (a.k.a. ESG), communications is a hot topic among communicators today. Am I right? Last month IABC/Calgary hosted Rhona DelFrari, chief sustainability officer and senior vice-president, stakeholder engagement at Cenovus Energy for a conversation about the evolution of the communications professional and the shift to a career in sustainability communications. The webinar explained what a career in sustainability looks like and tips for expanding our careers into ESG communications or otherwise. If you’re thinking you’ve missed some great advice, don’t worry, I have a summary recap of IABC’s questions and Rhona’s answers here for you. 

During last month’s webinar, Rhona DelFrari explained what a career in sustainability looks like and tips for expanding our careers into ESG communications or otherwise.

Q1: Why do you think ESG is such a hot topic?

“In the last three years in particular ESG has become central to organizations. What’s changed from the past is that those voices that tell us to think about the environment, people and our communities got louder and louder. One theory as to why this is happening is that social media gives everyone a louder voice.”

“And, today, climate is central. The world’s decision to embrace the need to address climate change has played a huge factor in broader ESG advancement. So, as soon as the public starts to care more about something that’s when government officials start to care more about that same thing and, that’s when investors start to feel pressure and, then companies start to feel the pressure too. ESG disclosure is the response to the ask of society.”

Q2: What do you see as the value of having a communicator in a sustainability leadership role? What enables communicators to move into these roles?

“The number one skill set to be a good sustainability leader or to be in a sustainability role is the ability to influence. Communicators already influence, we build relationships, we’re able to assess what’s happening in the external environment and bring it back to our organizations in a way that’s easy to understand—in a way that we’re able to explain what the value is and explain what direction to take our company in. Communicators are a perfect fit because influencing is what we do for a living.”

Q3: What advice would you give to communicators who are navigating ESG internally in organizations that are still not integrating it?

“Sustainability teams are often quite small. You have to be reaching out across the organization for data and performance updates. You can’t lead sustainability in a silo. Diversity & Inclusion, Indigenous Engagement, Employee Engagement are part of sustainability. If you want to be the expert in this area, research within your organization and take some courses—indigenous engagement, stakeholder engagement are some examples.”

“Also, as communicators, we need to offer our opinions on ESG topics. Talk about how communications and sustainability can work together in organizations. Make it known what the value of sustainability is. Talk to the people who lead sustainability and offer value to these people in the areas of sustainability—arrive with the data to let the organization know how sustainability can add value.”

Q4: How has the role of a communicator evolved? 

“One positive trend is leaders and executives now seeing us for our strategic advice—they see us for our interpretation skills. They see the value of how we interpret external voices into advice the company can use to create a strategy or to respond to stakeholders effectively. We can keep doing this.”

Q5: What are some of the trends you see around organizations or for communications these days?

“The request to wear many hats these days is required of many of us. We’re supposed to be social media experts, speech writing experts, we’re supposed to know all the latest disclosure rules, and we’re supposed to make sure that we’re on top of all the trends. I’d say this is something we’re all dealing with. Because of this, focus on care for the mental health of ourselves and our peers is something we’re seeing a lot more of and this is a positive change for everyone.” 

“Also, the focus on inclusion and diversity and the shift to inclusion first is a welcomed result of the Black Lives Matter movement and many other things that happened in 2020. To our benefit, inclusion and diversity gained a lot more prominence in organizations over the last year and will continue to remain a focus for organizations going forward. We as communicators can be mindful and point out to leaders’ opportunities to be more inclusive. Data shows that inclusivity adds value to organizations, so if we can be more inclusive, we should.”

Q6: According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 65% of employees feel that CEOs should step in to intervene or influence when social issues aren’t being addressed.  As a CSO, what do you think the role of the CEO is? And what do you think the role of the CSO is?

“There is an emphasis that CEOs should be heard more on these issues. I feel that organizations need to speak on behalf of the industry. And, I do think that there is a responsibility for senior leaders to take the opportunity to be listened to when they have the chance—it’s just like when celebrities or people of influence speak we listen—CEOs are being listened to.”

Q7: How do we set a standard for ESG in our organizations?

“Every organization needs to determine on its own what ESG areas are most important to its success and its stakeholders. Do this with a materiality assessment. This is different for every organization and it’s even different for companies within the same sector. So, we need to do it.”

“Second, there is a goal to get some standardization for ESG. Government policy is starting to move us in this direction. Right now, what “good” looks like is still very uncertain. This is why I think it’s even more important for organizations to be proactive in telling their story. We can’t just allow stakeholders, investors, or environmental non-profit organizations to pull from us because it may be inaccurate. Until we get standardization of disclosure, we still need to make sure we are passing information on our own and making sure we are hitting the right audiences.”

Q8: How do you take the next step to the executive leadership level? What’s your advice?

“From a personal perspective… go learn all areas of the company. Stay curious about the company. Read the annual report, read the quarterly financial report, make sure you listen in to your CEO on the quarterly calls, read news releases—we need business acumen. We have to be able to see what is in the best interest overall for the stakeholders and shareholders from all angles.”

“Try to move around beyond your role. Take your skills and work in a different area of your organization. It might be scary, but you really do need to do it if you want to add value.”

“And, don’t be scared to offer up your opinion. You have the insight— you’re already talking to a lot of people in the organization. Your opinion is often already a lot more informed than many of the experts in the organization. Share this knowledge and the value-adding insights you have.”

Thank you, Rhona, for sharing your tips for becoming a sustainability communicator and for sharing your insight on trends for us to watch for. We look forward to hearing from you again soon!

To sign up for upcoming webinars with IABC/Calgary click here. 

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