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February 2023 / 10 Min Read

Use These 5 Tips to Build a Compelling ESG Story in Today’s Evolving D&O Market


ESG ratings don’t always tell the whole story, which is why companies should develop a clear and compelling ESG story for D&O underwriters.


Key Takeaways

  1. ESG is increasingly becoming a significant risk-selection component among underwriters for Directors and Officers Liability Insurance (D&O).
  2. D&O insurers mostly rely on ESG ratings from outside agencies that claim to offer stakeholders a clear picture of how a company is managing ESG risks.
  3. Having a compelling ESG story ready to share with D&O underwriters is critical in accurately reflecting the company’s values and commitments.

As business demands and expectations evolve, corporate boards and leaders are increasingly being held accountable for their organization’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy and performance. It is therefore unsurprising that ESG is increasingly becoming a significant risk-selection component among underwriters for Directors and Officers Liability Insurance (D&O).

Proper oversight of ESG materiality factors is imperative. Organizations that do not actively manage or address this topic open themselves up to potential litigation risk or regulatory investigations and actions.

D&O insurers mostly rely on ESG ratings from outside agencies that claim to offer stakeholders a clear picture of how a company is managing ESG risks. However, with a proliferation of ESG ratings providers and no standardized methodologies, there is now greater recognition that ratings might not tell the whole story. This reality heightens the need for companies to proactively and thoroughly disclose their ESG oversight journey with D&O underwriters at renewal.

Why ESG Has Gained Underwriting Prominence

Underwriters face exposure to litigation on a broad spectrum of ESG-related matters, such as climate change mitigation and inclusion and diversity policies. “Greenwashing,” the practice of exaggerating claims about ESG progress and attributes, is also becoming a growing D&O litigation concern.1 Stakeholders, including investors, employees and consumers, increasingly expect companies to not only make commitments to ESG topics, but also hold them accountable when commitments are not met.

Similarly, many companies must make a number of ESG-related disclosures to comply with relevant regulations. To aid in these complex calculations of risk, ESG ratings firms evaluate companies’ plans, their adherence to those plans and how they stack up against their peers.

Because there is a solid connection between good governance (the G in ESG) and fewer, less severe losses in D&O, companies benefit from highly interested and engaged D&O insurers that offer competitive options in exchange for competent governance. Even further, incorporating a company’s environmental and social impact will help improve ratings and D&O policy renewal discussions, in addition to helping a company avoid red flags.

Ratings Don’t Tell the Whole Story

ESG ratings firms are increasingly scrambling to provide accurate, timely and relevant information as demand for ESG information continues to grow. To keep pace with the market, different ratings agencies are developing their own criteria to evaluate how well a company is mitigating ESG risks. Meanwhile, no industry-wide standards have been developed to help insurers and other stakeholders interpret the different ratings. Even if some agencies are using similar criteria, how they weigh each one can produce drastically different results, causing some to call into question the reliability of the assessments.2

Another challenge with ESG ratings is the elevated expectations that come with high ratings. Some companies in Europe are seeing that higher-rated companies face increased shareholder activism or threats of litigation. This is true either when targets are not met or when financial performance suffers. Investors are likely to ask if the company overcommitted or perhaps focused too much on non-financial issues, leading to poor performance.

How to Share a Compelling and Honest ESG Story

So how can companies overcome the inconsistencies with ESG ratings? The key is in the story behind the ratings. An outside party rating a company’s ESG efforts is only getting a snapshot of the company at a certain point in time. The rating may not necessarily incorporate where the company started on its ESG journey or the progress it has made along the way. A company can receive a poor rating that may not reflect the steps it took to reach its ESG goals or recognize the significant progress that has been made since the inception of ESG initiatives.

When talking about a company’s ESG story, it’s important to keep in mind the broad audience that is listening, including, among others, employees, prospective employees, investors, advisors, suppliers, competitors and insurance underwriters. Emphasizing different elements for each intended audience will help drive engagement with the company’s ESG story and strike an appropriate balance among competing interests. However, the company should have a strong overall narrative that’s backed by data and not only resonates with the various stakeholders, but also accurately reflects the company’s values and commitments.

The biggest mistake a company can make in its ESG storytelling is overcommitting to goals they can’t reach or have no intention of reaching.”

Laura Wanlass
Partner and practice leader, Aon Global Corporate Governance and ESG Advisory


Five Tips for a Successful ESG Story

Here are five helpful tips to always keep in mind:

1. Understand the material risk factors that are relevant to your company, industry and size and decide which frameworks make sense to disclose.

The ESG risk factors you report should consider what matters to your investors and other priority stakeholders. They also must align with your ESG strategy, corporate initiatives and what others in your industry are reporting.3

2. Highlight board oversight of your ESG strategy, so that all involved can have confidence in strong governance practices.

Standardized policies, procedures, controls and governance are crucial for demonstrating your firm’s ESG management efficiency.

3. Design your reporting architecture and tools to ensure accuracy and effectiveness.

By applying a standardized approach to sourcing your ESG data and aligning it to existing frameworks, you can improve the quality of your ESG reporting.

4. Calibrate your story by striking an appropriate balance of achievable goals to satisfy multiple stakeholders.

While many companies would love to aim for aggressive carbon reduction targets, it’s important to keep in mind the risk of overreaching. Even if successful, any shortcomings will be amplified by both ratings agencies and other stakeholders.

5. Develop a way to tell a consistent, coherent and authentic story.

Firms that tell a clear and compelling story can establish themselves as leaders in the market. Critical stakeholders, such as investors and underwriters,4 will more favorably view how you are navigating your ESG journey.

It’s also important to remember how and where your story is communicated. The overarching narrative should be consistent, while allowing for emphasis on different parts of the plan to reach intended audiences. Whether it’s in formal regulatory filings or social media posts, a lack of consistency, especially in public-facing materials, can undo much of the goodwill generated by an ESG story.

Take Action Now

The world of ESG can be complicated. Beyond the good that companies can do by meeting and exceeding their ESG goals, underwriters in the D&O market have begun to recognize well-articulated ESG plans and firms are experiencing their benefits. Companies that pay attention to the opportunities of an established ESG plan tend to be well-run with ethical cultures, high employee satisfaction and strong customer loyalty — which translates to better business performance and D&O risk management.

So take action now. Instead of letting an outside party share your story for you, ensure you have well-intentioned and realistic goals and communication strategies in place to effectively tell your whole story to all stakeholders involved.

Learn more about developing ESG strategies and additional insights to help you make better ESG decisions.

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The information contained herein and the statements expressed are of a general nature and are not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information and use sources we consider reliable, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. No one should act on such information without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation.

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