Talking about ESG with Dunn + Falkenstein

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Nikki Festa O’Brien
March 9, 2023
Talking about ESG with Dunn + Falkenstein

I am delighted to share an interview with the one and only Angela Dunn. After spending years working together when she was in her executive communications role at SAP, we have remained good friends, and my admiration for her has only grown as she has turned some of the more challenging times in the last few years into unbelievable opportunities. She is bringing us fresh content by interviewing leaders across several industries and, most recently, embarking on this phenomenal adventure with Olivia Falkenstein to help brands with their environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. This is an important topic, and putting these initiatives on the back burner is easy as other priorities click into view. However, progress only happens with a sustained dedication that grows over time. This is exactly what Angela and Olivia have made their mission, and we are lucky to have them share highlights from the field and their sage advice on getting started and measuring success.

We hope you enjoy the interview!

Nikki: We had the opportunity to work together – twice – when you were leading executive communications for SAP's Global CMO and again when supporting the President of its Customer Experience Business. ESG was always an important initiative for the executives you supported and you personally. Can you tell me what it is like to go out on your own and what you want to achieve with Dunn + Falkenstein?

Angela: Thank you, Nikki! To me, you are the embodiment of the consummate PR professional, so it’s an honor to be featured on your blog.

I left the corporate world at the height of the pandemic. As a way of staying in touch with people and producing content for LinkedIn, I started doing interviews with founders and entrepreneurs. It was a fascinating exercise where I gained insight into the founder mindset and expanded my network.

After talking to many people who had founded their own businesses, striking out on my own felt quite natural. I had a lot of tailwinds as well as role models and supporters. When Olivia Falkenstein suggested we go into business together, I didn’t hesitate.

She is not only an old friend but also a certified sustainability consultant and former marketing executive. We worked with a coach through the discovery process to find our niche. We positioned ourselves as a sustainability and communications consultancy because we believe that the C-level executives in a company need to be the voices of their ESG strategy. That resulted in our mission statement - to help business leaders do good and talk about it.

It’s a lot of work, but I have the energy and wasn’t ready to retire to the golf course.

Nikki: A KPMG survey recently reported that one of the top ways CEOs prepare for a downturn is to pause or reconsider efforts around ESG (59%). Can sustainability initiatives survive a tough economy? Why should this remain on the top of CEOs' agendas?

Angela: Great question. During a recession, ESG might not seem like a priority.

Yet many ESG issues have become so critical that action can't wait. Regulatory demands are increasing for reporting and emissions reduction or gender parity and equality. Investors ask for the ESG credentials of any company they consider putting their money into and pressure executives to act. In the words of Larry Fink, Blackrock CEO, "We focus on sustainability not because we're environmentalists, but because we are capitalists and fiduciaries to our clients."

So yes, if you look at ESG as a cost factor, a standalone concept, or, even worse, a PR or CSR practice, it will be low on the CEO's agenda. But most CEOs have the long-term health of the business on their radar, and ESG initiatives require long-term investment and consideration. ESG is the new "digital transformation," which 10 years ago was at the top of every CEO's agenda. And that has paid off for them. Sustainability is a transformational process; it takes time but builds trust among shareholders, staff, customers, and suppliers. If a CEO wants to relieve the economic pressure of the recession by reconsidering ESG initiatives, they may save in the short term but definitely lose in the long term.

Nikki: Setting clear KPIs and being data driven is more critical now than ever. Olivia said this perfectly in a recent blog post, "what you can't measure, you can't manage." What are some of the outside-in and inside-out metrics for measuring the impact of a company's sustainability efforts?

Angela: I asked Olivia to answer this one – she's the expert here.

Olivia: There are two ways of looking at sustainability and business operations: 1) the impact a company has on society and the environment (inside-out), 2) and the risks and opportunities associated with environmental changes and social trends that affect a company (outside-in). Companies need to have processes, defined roles and responsibilities, and report on how they identify, assess and manage the impact, risks and opportunities associated with sustainability. This is a management narrative that might or might not be supported by figures, but it’s critical for sustainability and financial reporting.

The metrics used to report on sustainability differ depending on the industry. These are a few metrics included by the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). All other standards have variations of the same.

- Environment: e.g., Greenhouse gas emissions; Energy Management; Water & Wastewater Management

- Social Capital: e.g., Human Rights & Community Relations; Data Security; Access & Affordability.

- Human Capital: e.g., Diversity & Inclusion; Employee Health & Safety.

- Business Model & Innovation: e.g., Product Design & Lifecycle Management; Supply Chain Management.

- Leadership & Governance: e.g., business ethics and competitive behavior.

Nikki: Can you tell me about a recent project you worked on? What were the objectives, unexpected challenges, and anticipated results?

Angela: We are currently advising two C-levels from a technology company. Their stars are rising, and their public profiles need to catch up.

The first challenge was establishing their executive presence and voices on different platforms. They were lurkers on LinkedIn and had recently joined a company whose senior leaders were not in the habit of communicating with their staff or on social.

So as a communications professional, you can't go in with the big campaign guns ablaze. The company culture would be overwhelmed. You must be sensitive to the existing communications landscape and work from there.

An unexpected challenge has been ghostwriting through third parties. Even the most talented writers need help with the complexity of capturing the unique voice of an executive and working with their content. There is a balance between what needs to be said about current developments (war, recession, mass layoffs, or earthquakes) and what a company spokesperson can say so that investors or employees don't panic. Does an executive need to talk about any and every topic? And what's the relevancy of that topic for their role and their company? Above all, how do they have an impact when discussing and supporting the matter with actions?

The aim is to stay relevant, be authentic, and have an impact - that's the perfect balance. I like working with two central goals – increasing engagement and building audience trust. We want our clients to be recognized as thought leaders in their industries – it's not just about the number of followers, though that is a measure of how good a job you're doing. The immediate feedback from peers and colleagues is just as valuable. They notice the uptick in communications first.

Nikki: You recently started a personal sustainability journey by declaring that you will only buy five new things in 2023 (beginning in February, of course) in an effort to have a more "ethical wardrobe." Influenced by this article in the Financial Times, I was personally invested in this topic as I, too, am looking to bring sustainability inward and invest more experiences vs. "things." Have you mapped out your five new purchases? If so, can you let us in on one of them?

Angela: The FT article was a catalyst for rethinking my purchasing behavior. What I realized is this: Sustainable style is inextricably connected to my relationships with money (and, by extension, investments) and social media. Most of my purchases are impulse-driven – I see something on Instagram, and boom.

My weakness is handbags – new or used. I bought a designer bag this month - that was on my list. I want a Jackson Pollack and a vintage Louis Vuitton canvas bag, so I'm on the hunt for an LV Saumur – in case any of your readers have one stashed away.

I invest in things that you'll notice a block away.

Like my puffer. When I was in London recently, people were yelling "fab!" from the opposite side of the street. I've never gotten so many remarks on an item of clothing. It's pretty extravagant. I wanted a puffer for warmth but not an outdoors shop version or something boring and black. When the branding said the jacket would go from the slopes of St Moritz to the streets of Milan, I was sold. Good branding does that to me.

I might buy another one this year.

Secondhand is second nature to me. I grew up in a big family, and my mother made most of our clothes. I've been wearing vintage since high school. Now it's considered sustainable, then it was affordable.

The exercise is about detoxing my wardrobe, digital habit, and wallet. It's about being more mindful of our resources – time, money, and the planet. And yet I will fail at sticking to only five new items in 2023. I'm a magpie.

Nikki: You've had one of the most fascinating careers in communications. Reporter on the front lines, translator, executive whisperer, podcaster (I still miss You Said It!), and now a consultant. Is there a single experience that you feel was particularly transformative or set the course to get you where you are today?

Angela: You know those media reports that say a degree in English literature won't get you a job? I'm here to say they're wrong.

I have always loved to write. In high school and at university, I contributed to the school newspapers. At McGill, I won awards for poetry and considered going into advertising. Because copywriting is basically poetry, right?

When I was working at an American PR agency in Beijing in the late 1990s, one client was a major consumer goods multinational. Our brief was to make their coffee brand appealing to China's tea-drinking population. Today, there's a Starbucks on every corner in China. People still drink tea, but coffee is associated with a stylish, contemporary lifestyle. That's how we positioned it. I'm not taking credit for coffee sales in China, but it was a fascinating period in the People's Republic at a time when the economy was just taking off. It was a market-making opportunity for just about every consumer brand.

Nikki: How can our clients get in touch with you and Olivia?

I’m on the playground that is LinkedIn every day. Feel free to message me there. My email and phone number are on our website: Visit https://dunnfalkenstein.com/ or schedule a meeting at: https://calendly.com/dunnfalkenstein.

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