Welcome to FNEI Insights, the FiscalNote Executive Institute’s monthly thought leadership blog where we interview executives about top issues affecting companies, including ESG and sustainability; diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and accessibility; technological innovation; global risk, and more. This month we spoke with Erica Brinker, Chief Commercial Officer and Head of ESG at Array Technologies, about how businesses can communicate more effectively on ESG issues.
Activists and regulators are turning up the heat on companies that misstate their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) bona fides. From finance to travel to entertainment, more firms are facing legal scrutiny, as well as social-media vitriol, for alleged “greenwashing.”
While such charges command headlines, even the most scrupulous organizations wrestle with the challenge of communicating effectively on sustainability issues, says Erica Brinker of Array Technologies, a New Mexico-based maker of solar trackers, which adjust the angle of solar panels and other devices to maximize sun exposure throughout the day.
As Chief Commercial Officer and Head of ESG at the NASDAQ-listed firm, Brinker is deeply familiar with the critical role that communications plays in companies’ sustainability efforts. “Building a strong ESG program begins in many ways with communications,” she says. “The three key skills any ESG leader needs to be most proficient are the ability to engage key leaders, adeptness at cross-organizational collaboration, and expertise that extends well beyond functional silos. Communication is a foundation for all these competencies and amplifies their effectiveness.”
To develop such skills, Brinker credits her own diverse background in marketing and communications — including stints at designer Ralph Lauren, jeweler Tiffany, and industrial manufacturer Honeywell where she served as Chief Marketing Officer. “ESG brings together many disparate parts of the business: legal, finance, safety, supply chain, human resources, and many more. Marketing and communications professionals are often put in a position to work broadly and cross-functionally, so this [background] can be extremely helpful in leading an ESG program.”
Transparency is Key
Today, few areas of the corporate world generate more buzz than ESG and investor interest in sustainability has soared accordingly. By the end of 2021, the value of ESG-focused mutual funds, for example, totaled some $2.7 trillion — up 53 percent from the start of the year. A blizzard of ESG ratings and frameworks have accompanied the sector’s explosive growth: a recent survey of asset managers by GaiaLens, a data provider, found that only 23 percent were satisfied with the transparency offered by their ESG investments.
To build their organizations’ credibility, ESG leaders should therefore prioritize candid, transparent communication, says Brinker. “Your metrics aren’t always going to be perfect or as good as you want them to be. But being straightforward when communicating ESG and sustainability efforts with your stakeholders is the best way to earn their trust.”
Without transparent communication on ESG issues, companies are also unlikely to reap the full benefits of their progress on sustainability. “Using external communications to tell your ESG story in a transparent way not only instills trust between your company and its stakeholders,” explains Brinker, “it also helps ratings agencies better assess your organization.”
To get their ESG messages out, business leaders must also proactively work to capture the interest of the fourth estate, by providing clear, timely communication. “It’s imperative that we share our [respective organizations’] progress against [our firms’] goals,” observes Brinker. “However, we are often competing in a crowded news cycle, with many other companies sharing their stories and vying for small set of journalists who can help amplify our news.”
Yet another crucial stakeholder that requires effective ESG communications is a company’s employees; without their support, sustainability initiatives will stall. Fortunately, there are numerous ways for managers to connect with their workforce, adds Brinker.
“Our intranet is a valuable tool we use to make sure our employees are up to speed on our latest ESG news before it is shared externally. We make sure our employees’ voices and ideas are heard and recognized. Employees also receive communications from the leadership team on ESG-related initiatives to ensure they are always kept in the loop. We also have regular, live, Q&A sessions, which give employees an opportunity to ask questions and be heard,” she says.
Become an SME
While ESG-focused executives stand to benefit from sharpening their communication skills, marketing and communications professionals will, in turn, benefit from honing their ESG subject-matter expertise. To achieve the latter, advises Brinker, start by becoming highly fluent in how your enterprise collects and manages data.
“At Array, we collaborate cross-functionally to ensure ESG information is gathered comprehensively and accurately. By carefully documenting our methodologies and verifying data from multiple sources, we have a clear understanding of our current metrics,” she says. “Much of the source data is also tracked with sophisticated digital tools, to ensure we have documented our progress and can revisit data to record long-term trends.”
Know Your Audience
Effective ESG communication may share common traits, such as an emphasis on transparency; but the best channels for conducting such communication will ultimately vary by stakeholder. Investors, for instance, gravitate to annual reports and quarterly earnings’ calls. Ratings agencies often prefer lots of raw data. Customers tend to learn about ESG performance via social media, as well as from traditional advertising.
“When communicating around ESG,” concludes Brinker, “you are communicating to discrete audiences, all with high expectations. The challenge is finding an effective way to communicate that reaches each unique audience, while being honest and clear to avoid greenwashing or other related issues.”