Risky Business: spokesperson responsibility in the age of ESG

In May, businesses were issued with a stark reminder of the responsibilities their spokespeople face when HSBC’s Stuart Kirk, Head of Responsible Investment at HSBC Asset Management, shared a presentation which claimed that climate change warnings are “unsubstantiated” and that there is “always some nut job telling [him] about the end of the world.”

In a livestreamed “Moral Money” conference chaired by the Financial Times, Mr Kirk showed slides stating that “unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong” in a presentation titled “why investors need not worry about climate risk”, the theme and content of which had reportedly been approved internally. During the presentation, he accused both the United Nations and the Bank of England of exaggerating the financial risks of climate change.

The intense scrutiny that has followed, and the repercussions for both Mr Kirk and HSBC, will have caused ripples of both acknowledgment and fear amongst spokespeople and communications experts alike. What might once have been interpreted as a slip up, throwaway comment and deemed embarrassing or a “bit too bold” at worst, is now, in this age of ESG, a reputationally damaging, business-critical matter of media interest.

Expressing controversial opinions, accidentally or intentionally, is no longer a mistake that spokespeople can afford to make.

When did authenticity become so important?

We live in an era where environmental, social and governance issues are increasingly critical to business strategy. Many businesses now have specific ESG departments or job roles, and investment can be impacted by these commitments.

This all comes down to the fact that consumers have become increasingly concerned about a business’ ethics and purpose, with 63% of adults agreeing that brands should increase communications around the sustainability of their products and services.[1]

As a result, there is now significant investment in ESG and CSR external communications. However, this is a contentious and challenging space to operate in – the same consumers that value ethics and purpose are increasingly sceptical about a business’ true intentions.

In fact, 63% of consumers believe brands get involved with sustainability only for commercial reasons, rather than ethical.[2] This had led to nervousness amongst communications experts, with nearly half (49%) of marketers admitting they are wary of working on sustainability marketing campaigns, fearing their company or clients might be accused of “greenwashing”.[3]

The media and consumers are quick to question the authenticity of ESG communications, even when those communications appear spotless. This means businesses are held to such high standards that they cannot afford to be anything less than perfect.

So, when a spokesperson steps away from the business’ agreed messaging and narrative, even in an internally approved presentation, it is only a matter of time until accusations of greenwashing follow.

And this is far from just a communications issue. “Cancel culture” is a serious business and personal risk that all public figures must now contend with.

Spokesperson hyper-vigilance

The responsibility of being a spokesperson has changed substantially in even just the last five years. The way we select, brief and monitor them, and the internal sign off process used for their presentations and speaking topics, needs to change with it. Hyper-vigilance is key, and not just in media materials and interviews. In an era where words can be tweeted just seconds after they’re said in a private room, this vigilance must extend to all work-related events, meetings and documents. Spokespeople must be “always on”.

This means what defines a spokesperson has also changed. Spokespeople are not just a name on a press release which sees formal internal sign off and rounds of amends, nor are they senior people speaking at public events. Spokespeople are now those who meet others in the industry, go for business lunches with stakeholders or attend conferences. Anything they say can be taken and posted to social media, sometimes with context, often without.

Looking forward

HSBC has acted quickly and done the right thing, denouncing Mr Kirk’s comments as “inconsistent with HSBC’s strategy” and ensuring they “do not reflect the views of the senior leadership of HSBC” and he has reportedly been suspended. The long-term reputational damage will likely be minimal, but a stark warning has been issued, which communications experts must pay heed to.

In an ideal world, businesses would base ESG commitments and purpose on values their spokespeople and employees genuinely hold and their business lives by. When this happens, the question of authenticity disappears.

Until then, communications experts must ensure spokespeople understand how business-critical their role is and that they are able to live and breathe their business’ messaging and tone in all circumstances.

[1] https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/half-marketers-fear-greenwashing-majority-say-brands-commercial-reasons/1730273

[2] https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/half-marketers-fear-greenwashing-majority-say-brands-commercial-reasons/1730273

[3] https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/half-marketers-fear-greenwashing-majority-say-brands-commercial-reasons/1730273

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