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Apple’s sustainability-focused short-film ad has been quite a popular topic for discussion in ESG, sustainability and communications circles since it was released in September. We’ve written about the ad from the perspective of its content and attendant risks. But there is another question being discussed – should companies report ESG by focusing facts and data, or – as Apple did – through storytelling? I’ve seen several articles and LinkedIn posts on this question.

I’ve seen statements like “storytelling trumps facts” and “marketing is often diminished by engineers and tech types but the mistake they make is underestimating how powerful it is”. Yet the ESG and sustainability world has been plagued for years by glossy reports with pretty photos that obfuscated (or tried to distract from) relevant facts/data concerning matters like:

  • financial value of ESG efforts/initiatives
  • planetary impact on nature, biodiversity and human health
  • societal benefits

Frankly, there must be a balance between facts and storytelling – but how do you decide what that looks like? Companies need to understand their audiences and – candidly – determine who is most important to them. A long time ago (in 2015), Robert Eccles and Tim Youmans came up with the idea that a company’s

“board must decide which audiences are most significant for the ability of the corporation to create value over the short, medium, and long term. Then it can lay the foundation for improved corporate reporting.”

The pair proposed that boards issue an annual “Statement of Significant Audiences and Materiality” to specifically clarify the primary intended audiences for ESG reporting and context for materiality determinations. In 2019, the pair changed direction on this concept somewhat and aligned with the Business Roundtable to support corporate Statements of Purpose.

I believe that the original Statement of Significant Audience and Materiality is still valid and would help ESG staff, marketing professionals, executives and investors understand the context of corporate ESG disclosures as they currently exist – until prescriptive legal mandates come into effect. It is worth taking a ride in the “way back machine” to revisit Eccles’ and Youmans’ original ideas. Our Guidebook on Communicating ESG Value may also be helpful in thinking about various ways to report on corporate ESG results, strategies and benefits. For more insight about how to effectively communicate with your board to help them make determinations about Significant Audiences and Materiality, check out our guidebook “10 Tips for How ESG Leadership and Staff Can Support Company Boards.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile