Everybody’s talking ESG these days: what advice would the ancient Greeks have to offer?

The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about effective communications.

They knew how to argue credibly, persuade respectfully and debate logically.

And if they were asked, they might have something to say about the current state of oil and gas “comms” these days – particularly communication related to sustainability and matters ESG.

Here’s a hard truth: our industry has never been terribly proficient at communicating in a way that constructively changes minds.

There are multiple reasons for this reality, but a key one is that we have failed, for the most part, to be compelling storytellers – particularly at the grassroots, where people make the meaning they make about the things that matter.

Life’s grassroots are about the social spaces where people can often be positively persuaded to contemplate other perspectives because, in those spaces, the stories that matter in life, told well, can compel them to (in a way) shift their world view and make room for new ideas.

At the ball diamond. In the gym. During the neighbourhood barbecue. Over beers.

These are the places where our sector’s staff shows up as ordinary people, living their lives. These are places where solid one-on-one-people-talking-to-people engagement occurs. Places where trust is more likely to be present and the stakes aren’t about balance sheets and share values. Detach discussions about environmental sustainability from, say, a company’s profit performance, and recast it as informal chat between neighbours at the end of a driveway, and the latter could be substantially less polarizing than the former will almost certainly become.  

But as an industry, we’ve generally ignored the opportunity to help our staff be effective at the grassroots by asking them to be active advocates and not apologists – and giving them the tools and techniques to do so. Instead, we leave that to corporate comms teams and industry associations.

With everybody talking ESG these days, the industry might reflexively ask itself this question: is this a brass ring opportunity to connect differently?

The ancient Greek rhetoricians – yes, rhetoric back in the day was a good thing – might look at the sector’s ESG outreach opportunities and offer some insights on how to get at it before it’s too late. Indeed, set in a historical context, they might point out that ESG is a golden opportunity because it’s (generally) about doing the right thing – and those master persuaders were all about doing the right thing.

In fact, they might offer up their own three-letter combination as a foundational platform for thinking through effective ESG communications: EPL

ESG needs little explanation: it stands for Environmental, Social and Governance; the new shorthand for the standards and behaviours by which companies and sectors are expected to comport themselves by a diverse range of stakeholders, including investors. Each letter may represent a “bucket” of activities but the reality is they’re deeply interconnected and interdependent.

EPL, on the other hand, is understandably less well-known, but in combination – Ethos, Pathos and Logos – have underpinned effective communications for centuries. Ethos has everything to do with the speaker's integrity and credibility; that is, their trustworthiness and believability. Pathos centres on the message’s emotional appeal; in other words, does it resonate? Is it relevant? Does it matter to me? Logos is all about the logic and the facts of the matter. Is the data sound? Are those truths the audience recognizes? Like ESG, the letters EPL act in a delicate dance with each other; no one letter carries the burden of effective communications.

ESG is storytelling plain and simple. And investors are no longer the only listeners.

To the degree the pandemic has disrupted what little grassroots storytelling was occurring, it has also provided the sector some breathing room to regroup and rethink how storytelling can be a driver for our sector's next stage of relative stability – and the public and political support it will require to succeed. As companies move ever-more progressively into the ESG space, they must consider carefully the measures by which their messages around ESG will be taken up by the stakeholder spectrum which comprises the audience.

So, why not train their employees as ESG heralds – and train on the basis that in many ways, ethos, pathos and logos are already infused in grassroots interaction.

So, two things for the C-Suite: does your corporate sustainability report pass ethos-pathos-logos muster? Or will the audience simply consign it to the dustbin of corporate drivel? Have you tested it with ordinary Canadians – you know, those folks who create Scope 3 emissions? Another key question: how widespread is your employee engagement in it? And if they support its purpose, what are you doing to train them to take your message to the grassroots?

There are very good sustainability reports produced by Canadian companies; they provide excellent examples of reports done well – reports that tell a compelling story, or series of connected stories – and the industry needs that content to achieve escape velocity from the echo chambers in which they’re too often trapped. But there are not enough of them out there; certainly not enough to convince Canadians that our sector is moving ahead in something that resembles a united front. 

Employees, properly trained and engaged, are among key drivers to ensure that holistic approach occurs.

Here’s another opportunity for employee-driven ESG communications as the pandemic evolves and employees return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. The current primary ESG storytelling tool – that annual sustainability report – is at best a rear-view mirror look at the past. Given the pace at which ESG dynamics are moving, the report is dated as rapidly as someone presses the “save-as-PDF” button. Many companies are moving at a good clip with their initiatives – and employees are the best vehicle for getting the word out in real time – in real-life situations.

 Those ancient Greeks also understood a fourth component to effective communication persuasion: kairos.

Kairos is all about timing, or as the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it: “a time when the conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action.”

For our sector’s future, ESG performance pretty much nails the kairos dynamic.

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