It’s time again for pundits to issue prognostications about the year ahead. But how many of those forecasters predicted these events last December?
- Russia would initiate an unprovoked attack on a neighboring country, displacing millions and creating food and energy shortages.
- Inflation in the US would top 9 percent at one point—the highest rate in more than 40 years—and the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates seven straight times.
- Oil and gas stocks would soar by more than 50 percent, and technology stocks would tumble by more than one quarter. 
The Supreme Court would overturn Roe vs. Wade and challenge the legality of affirmative-action admission policies at colleges and universities. 
- In the midst of this turmoil, activist investors, two state governors, and an outspoken billionaire would attack stakeholder capitalism and ESG initiatives as “woke” and urge corporations to recommit to shareholder primacy. 
Forecasting the future is a fool’s game, as these events demonstrate. That said, allow me to play along. If we experience a global recession in 2023, I predict that critics of stakeholder capitalism and Environment, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) will escalate their hostile attacks, especially if corporate earnings decline.
Whether I’m right or wrong, communications professionals must prepare to face potential challenges to their organizations’ ESG investments in the year ahead. Specifically, bridging the often different—if not clashing—agendas of stakeholders and shareholders.
At the 75th annual Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) conference in November, I recalled a personal challenge a college adviser gave me years ago: “Why just be a force for good when you can be a force for great?” As communications professionals, I told the audience, we have an opportunity to be a “force for great” by bridging the shareholder-stakeholder divide before it becomes a chasm. Rather than debating with critics, we need to adopt a communications plan of our own. Here’s how:
Reassess the situation. Research published in November by Fordham University showed that 64 percent of consumers either had never heard of ESG or knew very little about it. And yet almost 79 percent of consumers want companies to support environmental and social initiatives. The data suggest that organizations need to do a better job of defining what ESG is (and isn’t) to quash critics’ claims that it is “an abuse of power” to “advance a liberal agenda.” 
Rebuild credibility. Communicators need to take a hard stand against greenwashing—a term so prevalent in 2022 that it even entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary. That includes redlining all exaggerated claims, false or misleading information, and vague promises. Climate experts at the UN’s COP27 conference in November took particular aim at most corporate and government net-zero pledges, calling them a “toxic cover-up” and “little more than empty slogans and hype.”
Reframe the narrative. The prevailing narrative: The fiduciary duty of the board is to maximize shareholder value. But that’s only partially true. In fulfilling that duty, directors must exercise their business judgment, evaluate potential outcomes, and weigh attendant risks and opportunities for the corporation, including those related to ESG. That’s why shareholder vs. stakeholder is a false debate. Proponents of stakeholder capitalism must adopt and promote a new narrative: By aligning shareholder and stakeholder interests, companies reduce risk, protect assets and increase their potential to create value for everyone.
Replace rhetoric with results. Businesses and governments need to embrace the UN’s “Integrity Matters” guidelines, which include: establishing interim targets for net-zero pledges, publishing detailed and concrete plans for meeting those goals, and being accountable and transparent about progress and failures. Corporations should begin to integrate ESG metrics into investor communications and demonstrate meaningful “shared value” creation for shareholders and stakeholders alike.
Reset our mindset. Too many companies still embrace a promotional mindset, using ESG as a means to enhance their corporate reputations. But public relations is a “two-way process of establishing and maintaining relationships among publics,” which the same college adviser who challenged me to be a “force for great” frequently embellished. We can only achieve that goal by adopting a dialogic mindset and engaging in authentic, non-agenda-driven discussions with all stakeholders, including those who may not agree with us.
Restore trust. Years ago, I worked for a boss who would often ask new staff members, “What business are we in?” If someone said “communications” (or the like), he’d politely correct them and say, “We’re in the trust business.” As Stephen Covey once wrote: “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”
Making predictions may be a fool’s game, but being unprepared is a bigger one. If we want to continue advancing environmental and social initiatives in 2023, communicators must work together to bridge the shareholder-stakeholder divide.
 “2022 Year to Date Best and Worst Performing Sectors, Industries and Stocks.” CSIMarket, 4 Dec. 2022.
 Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Seems Ready to Throw Out Race-Based College Admissions.” The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2022.
 Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. “The War on ‘Woke Capitalism’.” Financial Times, 27 May 2022.
 Copley, Michael. “How ESG Investing Got Tangled Up in America's Culture Wars.” NPR, 12 Sept. 2022.
Frank J. Oswald is a lecturer for the M.S. in Strategic Communication program, currently teaching the Ethical Decision-Making for Communicators elective. In the course, students learn how to identify ethical dilemmas, analyze potential risks and opportunities by applying ethical reasoning, and formulate persuasive arguments for winning support for their positions from within and outside their organizations.
For more than four decades, Oswald has helped brand and rebrand Fortune 500 companies, build industry-leading corporate social responsibility programs, and launch prominent start-ups, including the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in 2009, and Jet.com (now the engine of Walmart’s online business) in 2015. Oswald earned an M.S. in strategic communication from Columbia University and a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a Harry J. Grant Milwaukee Journal scholar.