Axios Communicators

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September 29, 2022

Welcome back!

💼 NEW: Each month, Axios Communicators will highlight career moves within the communication, agency and media space.

Today's newsletter is 1,088 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Examining the "E" in ESG

Illustration of a hand holding a bullhorn with an earth in the center

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) means one thing to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and something totally different to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Why it matters: 86% of consumers don’t know what ESG means, and this ambiguous acronym is the latest communications conundrum.

The big picture: I asked Axios chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon to explain ESG in the most basic terms.

  • “E is the responsibility to the planet, G is the responsibility to shareholders, and S is the responsibility to employees, vendors and customers.”
  • It’s a corporate catchall that is hard to quantify and even harder to communicate.

Driving the news: A new study by the Conference Board suggests that investor focus on ESG is accelerating, and corporate leaders are leaning in.

  • Yet, many still struggle to explain it, reports Fortune.
  • As one executive put it, “We need to communicate this in a simpler way and get rid of all the acronyms.”

For today, let's focus on the "E."

By the numbers: According to a new Penta report, the responsibilities of communicators are increasing "as customers incorporate ESG and DEI into their purchasing decisions," and when communicated well, these initiatives can be great for business.

  • If an organization can clearly communicate its ESG progress, people are more willing to pay a premium for their products and services (87%), invest (83%) and work for them (83%), a new Oracle global study found.
  • Pew found that millennials and Gen Z are particularly invested in environmental accountability, but they are skeptical of greenwashing.
  • "To reach young people, ESG initiatives must be communicated in a truthful, authentic and impactful way," says DeNora Getachew, CEO of DoSomething.org. "They want to truly understand how companies are adapting their policies and procedures to become more ethical and sustainable."

Zoom in: “As communicators, we must inform, achieve consensus around the complexities of the problems, and advance the solutions," says Dan Doherty, North American practice lead, global corporate affairs at BCW. "It’s a monumental time for our industry, because we have the opportunity to shape the world in a positive way.”

  • Brands like Patagonia, Microsoft and Mars have successfully tied environmental initiatives to company values and purpose — and they’ve communicated effectively by setting goals, providing tangible results that show impact and acknowledging setbacks.

What we’re watching: According to Doherty, while we're still grappling with ESG explainers, Europeans have adopted another term: “circularity.”

  • This closed-loop strategy reuses, recycles and repurposes as much as possible to create zero waste — and companies like Nike have already put it into action.

2. Chart: Know your audience

Data: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

To effectively communicate, you have to understand your audience and meet them where they are.

3. The dot connectors

Illustration of a thin, rectangle shaped Rubik's cube stylized as a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

ESG remains a priority, but businesses are struggling to fill sustainability-related jobs. Because of this, communication leaders are often left filling in the blanks — and in some cases, absorbing the entire portfolio.

State of play: Taking on these issues often leads to a title change, such as chief corporate affairs officer or chief impact officer.

  • Some — like BetterUp's Prince Harry and Cerebral's Simone Biles — serve as advisers, while others — like McDonald's Jon Banner and Walmart's Dan Bartlett — are corporate dot connectors, who ensure all narratives and initiatives align with the overall business strategy.

What they're saying: "CEOs are being asked to take positions on really thorny societal issues, and they are increasingly looking for a single leader on their team for guidance," says Bradley Akubuiro, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive.

Plus, ESG can have major political implications.

  • As Axios' Alayna Treene reports, "House Republicans plan to make an assault on ESG a central part of their legislative and investigative agenda if they take back the majority in November's midterms."
  • With this in mind, "the right person for the role needs to [grasp] the politico-economic ecosystem — plus understand both realistically and aspirationally who their company is and what value it adds," says Akubuiro.

The bottom line: As stakeholder needs and expectations continue to evolve and grow, so too do the opportunities for strategic communicators.

4. Communicator spotlight: Dani Dudeck, Instacart CCO

Photo illustration of Dani Dudeck in front of patterned background shapes

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Instacart

Dani Dudeck has a knack for building communications teams — she did it for MySpace, Zynga and most recently, Instacart, where she serves as chief communications and public affairs officer.

  • When she joined four years ago, she "knew so many households that ran on Instacart, but the fact that they weren't proactively and strategically building a communications function underscored the opportunity — and I was excited to build it.”

🪜How it’s structured: She reports to the CEO and oversees the policy team, plus corporate, brand, social impact and shopper communications.

🌡 The hardest day at work was also the most rewarding, Dudeck says, as the COVID-19 shutdown caused Instacart to go from a convenience to a necessity overnight.

  • "We didn’t wait to be told what to do and how to do it. We created new processes — like contactless delivery — and the entire industry followed suit within 48 hours."
  • “We quickly realized that our communications were a public service, telling people how they could put food on the table for their families or how furloughed workers could earn money quickly.”

👶🏼 De-stress routine: Spending time with her two young children. They are deep into Season 3 of "Bluey."

📈 Trend spot: The rise of internal communications. Dudeck says internal and external messaging must go hand-in-hand, and be crafted explicitly and delivered quickly.

She’s also noticed growing tension (“unhelpful disdain”) between PR pros and reporters.

  • “We have no tolerance for that — and even if that's not the headline you dreamt up or the cycle didn’t go perfectly, it’s OK. Their job is not to do yours ... it's to report the news.”

Yes, but: This trend goes beyond reporter dynamics.

  • “Across the valley, there's a tendency to be zero-sum in communications — I win, you lose," Dudeck says. "We take a different approach, which is focused on growing the pie for our industry, not competing with them. For example, we partner on every announcement to show how Instacart technology is helping.”
  • Instacart Health — an initiative that partners with health professionals, hospitals and nonprofits to increase access to nutritious foods — is the latest example of these mission-driven announcements.

📱Most-used app: Slack.

🧠 Tip: “Work for a company or CEO that sees communications as a strategic advantage, not as insurance.”

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5. Parting words

“Communication is one of the most important skills you need to succeed in the workplace.”
— Microsoft CMO Chris Capossela on CNBC.

🤗 Thanks (as always!) to my editor Nicholas Johnston, copy editor Kathie Bozanich and YOU for reading.

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