The next era in communications shall stem from responsibility and all its practical dimensions

The transition from human-centric to ESG-centric communication is the big transformation in the public behaviour of companies and communications agencies

In the post-COVID era, we never stop talking about the great transformation in business. Year after year, after a period of adaptation and rapid "embrace" of novelties related to the unprecedented hybrid models of communication and work, the topic of the "great transformation" does not fall off the agenda.

Little by little, this transformation ceases to be great, it just crystallizes into the new reality that has come upon us and continues to develop at a breathless rate. We do not have time for big planning of big moves, big novelties, big changes – businesses just have to "keep up" with the times and set one foot into the future.

The person in the centre and… what comes next

Over the past five years, business behaviour and communications have shifted from mainstream to community. The man with his personality and characteristics stood at the centre, and the business focused on the deployment of the employer brand and placed the development of his people as the main focus in his communications. The employer brand ceased to be just a campaign; it became the DNA of the business and gained measurable, practical results. Undoubtedly this represents a great transformation from the familiar mass, declarative communication messages of the recent past. 

Artificial intelligence – an ally and optimizer

Artificial intelligence is coming and it is clear that we cannot stop it, but we can ally with and use it both to optimize processes and to multiply human creativity. Artificial intelligence has given a new impetus to the work of businesses, and hence to communicators – but it has also put a lot of questions on the agenda, mostly about the  veracity and credibility of the information generated, as well as about authorship. It is no coincidence that this was one of the main topics of the ICCO (International Communications Consultants Organization) World Congress in Warsaw this year. Ethical principles for working with artificial intelligence were adopted, quickly adapted and implemented in Bulgaria by the main organizations of communication consultants (the Bulgarian PR Association and the Bulgarian Society for Public Relations). Some of them are for transparency in working with AI, verification of information from several sources, human intervention to check bias, the ethics and responsibility that are fundamental to the profession, which also apply to this new type of "colleague" we have in communications.

ESG and DEI replace Employer Branding

Today though the man at the centre is no longer enough – neither for the business, nor for communication agencies. The imprint on society, the environment and the contribution to diversity and inclusion are at the centre of the behaviour of both companies and agencies.

In this fundamentally new environment, the employer brand seems too narrow a field for expression and communication, too limited a goal and horizon. It is so because society expects businesses to make the next step by adding to the care for their people also the care for the whole society and for the Planet Earth, no less. This progress is quite logical, but the thing is that it happened very quickly and companies need to react, changing their entire philosophy about the world. Otherwise they will be losers. For them, this means forming communities with their partners and users, based on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), as well as advocating the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

ESG & DEI are cool

Where is the role of communication here? It is as essential as ever, albeit new. Communication specialists help companies to send meaningful messages to their employees, who need to understand and accept the ESG and DEI policy not just as something necessary and inevitable, but above all as something really cool. To help them understand that, the word "business" should be filled with new content and there is no going back. Communication should also send relevant messages to the whole range of partners, because clear climate goals, real sustainability policy, transparency in work and data analysis, care and responsibility for employees – these are already the criteria for selecting partners. Those who do not meet these criteria will not have sustained success. And communication comes to the aid of explaining why. Finally, communication must effectively reach consumers – informing and persuading with simple words rather than clichés and hubris. It is not an exaggeration to say that at certain points communication is decisive whether a business will succeed at all. This is because the messages are really much more complex and comprehensive; the business is no longer equal to a product/service, but has grown into a complex system of values. The time for easy slogans is over. You need to communicate in depth, and at a time when keeping people's attention is the Labour of Sisyphus.

Sustainability reports are the new black

And what about the phenomenon of greenwashing? These are the false declarations of a company's environmentally friendly policy. It is because of this communication pollution that business leaders have been paying close attention to their sustainability reports recently. They are based on serious data sets, and the assessment is carried out according to internationally established reporting criteria. This is how the vital transparency is achieved. Therefore, the importance of this type of document will increase, and hence its adequate communication to different audiences and stakeholders. 

Here are some of the main types of activities to be implemented by businesses, and of course communicated correctly to both internal and external audiences:

  • adopting a sustainable business model – rethinking the current one;
  • increasing the competences of the team in terms of policies related to environmental and social governance, equity and inclusion; 
  • investment in the mental and physical health of employees;
  • strategic partnerships in the fields of ESG and DEI;
  • setting realistic, science-based goals related to environmental management;
  • strengthening the monitoring of the supply chain/partners towards the implementation of sustainable practices;
  • investment in tools for collecting quality data;
  • analysis of performance in ESG & DEI domains and regular updating of data.

The way communication agencies work is changing and becoming ESG-compliant

As an intermediary between business and society, the communication agency is a business in itself – and this same transformation applies to it. To be competitive, the agency must first embody the principles of ESG and DEI in its own vision and philosophy. Ideally, it should even be ahead of its clients in this regard to be able to guide them as a trusted consultant. 

And while just a year ago communication agencies were involved in the design and layout of business sustainability reports, to date the role of communication consultants in structuring and creating the content of these reports is key. This is a new area of competence for agencies, but it is mandatory.

This makes the client-agency relationship even more cohesive and important. For the good of all.

The good news is that none of this is just a paragraph in a textbook anymore. This is the new reality in communications. Whatever we do, our work must be measurable and must have an imprint for a better future. Otherwise, the business suffers – both as commercial results, and as a spirit and image of an employer and a social force.

Katya Dimitrova, Daniela Konstantinova