Rankings Management

From the streets to the business magazine: Activists and pressure groups discover the power of rankings

March 29, 23
Glueing oneself to the streets isn't the only way to direct media attention towards climate action: rankings and ratings on social, ethical, and environmental engagement are a new powerful tool in the toolbox of activists and pressure groups. Rankings provide simple answers to complex questions and are therefore well suited for snappy headlines, such as "Study causes a stir: the big climate bluff of German business?" (Focus, 9 Feb 2022). Communications managers, therefore, do well in preparing for such rankings and responding quickly, especially if rankings publish positive results.


The fact that rankings on climate protection can make headlines is highlighted by the latest report on the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor (CCRM) 2023 from the "New Climate Institute" in Cologne, Germany, dated February 12, 2023: The CCRM analyzes self-proclaimed climate leaders who have pledged to reduce or even reverse their CO2 emissions to zero in the coming years. According to the report, the climate targets of German companies such as Deutsche Post DHL, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen lack credibility. This warranted headlines in almost all German, but also many leading international media outlets, including Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Handelsblatt, Tagesschau, DW English, Der Tagesspiegel or taz.de. It was clear from the onset that the New Climate Institute was not aiming for a constructive exchange, but for a media slugfest. Although feedback is obtained from the assessed companies in advance, it is obtained so shortly before publication that it is doubtful whether any feedback could even be incorporated. 
While listed companies were prepared for this year's publication, the force of the ranking hit the 2022 groups with surprise and prompted many a company spokesperson to make sharp statements. Benjamin Ware, Global Head of Climate & Sustainable Sourcing at Nestle Group, for example, publicly accused the New Climate Institute of "a lack of understanding of the company's approach" and pointed out significant errors and inaccuracies in the study. In a statement, Unilever attested to "differing views" but added that it had "begun a productive dialogue with the NewClimate Institute to see how Unilever can meaningfully advance its approach."
Nestle has since maintained its position but has softened its tone, preferring to point to disputes between the ranking’s publisher NewClimate Institute and the “Science-Based Targets Initiative”, on which Nestle's climate targets were based. 
Meanwhile, the accusation of greenwashing continues. 
From a communications perspective, the companies had little chance to present their views to the public. After all, the media public loves David-versus-Goliath stories, and few want to deal with the methodological details of a ranking. 
So what to do? Activists with a clear ideologically motivated goal usually cannot be "captured" by "active" management, but rather follow through with their agenda. This also includes the targeted and high-profile pillorying of companies.
The importance of social and environmental rankings is increasing
Rankings by so-called "pressure groups" are not new. For years, organizations, especially in the fields of Human Rights and Diversity & Inclusion, have been using rankings to keep their issues on the agenda. In times of increasing transparency and technological innovations, it is to be expected that more and more activists will make use of this tool. 
There are several reasons for this - and important implications for companies at different levels. The most important reason for the increase in importance is the improved availability of data. Legal requirements are increasingly obliging even small companies to collect and disclose quantitative metrics. Governmental initiatives such as the Single EU Access Point for Company Information Initiative aim to make the data even more widely accessible. Commitments to common reporting standards such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) enable better comparability of data and ensure data quality. These frameworks make it easier for organizations such as the World Benchmarking Alliance and the aforementioned New Climate Institute to assess and compare the performance of companies in terms of their activities on climate change, social standards, etc.
The attractiveness of rankings for pressure groups is apparent: Based on facts and figures, they are extremely credible and therefore proven means of influencing politics, business and society. At the same time, rankings allow "good" companies to be distinguished from "bad" ones, which makes for pithy headlines. And because bad news bring more visibility, most pressure groups employ the "shaming" approach. In other words, they focus on identifying "under-performers".
Defining the benchmark for social and ecological commitment
However, there are also institutes that specifically highlight positive developments and thus successfully initiate change processes. The Access to Medicine Foundation (ATMF), for example, focuses in its Access to Medicine Index (ATMI) on evaluating the measures pharmaceutical companies take to ensure that low-income patients in poor countries receive life-saving medicines as well. The study, which is published every two years, also highlights the companies which need to take the greatest action. But in its reporting around the study, ATMF focuses primarily on the potential for the industry and highlights successful company initiatives. Rankings like these can create visibility of best practices and, more importantly, define the bar for good performance. This is because, in the ATMF example, companies are given a comprehensible framework with clear indicators and, moreover, information on who can be considered a role model in their industry. Both are useful stakeholder inputs that help companies set the right priorities and do the necessary internal convincing of the specialist departments. Ideally, the company improves its performance and at the same time earns reputation points through improved ranking results - a true win-win situation.
Of course, ranking results also reach investors via A.I.-based tools such as Rep-Risk or TrueValue. The question of whether a company becomes the focus of ecological and social pressure groups can be decisive for inclusion in a portfolio managed according to ESG criteria. After all, negative headlines and shitstorms do not provide a good foundation for good investments.
Do good and talk about it
On the other hand, if a company scores positively on a pressure group's list, there can hardly be a more important public recognition. The goal of corporate communications must then be to be visible in the public debate and to break through. While Nestle has had a FAQ page on its website since 2022 where the group describes its view of the CCRM ranking, Maersk, the only company in the same ranking that has repeatedly performed well, has given little to no comment on the issue. This is a wasted opportunity to enrich the public discourse with information from the field and thus boost its reputation.
So what should companies do to deal with social and environmental rankings from pressure groups? Generally, the same rules and precautions as in crisis communication apply. Above all, it is important to create internal structures in order to be able to react quickly in cooperation with the relevant departments - and to rationalize the emotional debate with facts. 
The following points provide an initial overview of suitable measures and processes for the communications department.
Monitor the media to identify relevant rankings for your company. Know where your company is listed and where it might appear in the future. Get an overview of organizations, their goals and media presence. Form a task force with responsible individuals from relevant departments and discuss weaknesses and the perspectives of relevant organizations and groups. Take seriously those requests from relevant organizations which request data or a confirmation of their assessment. Not responding to requests is perceived as a sign for something being hidden. Take a close look at the methodology of the ranking, but also at the publisher: Is the methodology legitimate or does it have flaws? Is the institute trustworthy, competent and genuinely interested in the topic, or is it operating within a conflict of interest? If the institute is trustworthy but the methodology is poor, it may make sense to seek dialogue and offer support. If the methodology is legitimate and the results are unfavorable to your company, keep the conversation going. Actively provide complete and accurate information about environmental and social practices, policies and performances. In doing so, you demonstrate to the Institute your commitment to sustainability and responsible business practices. Use rankings for self-assessment. External assessments of performances give companies the opportunity to further improve their environmental, ethical and social activities. Learn from top-ranked companies. Through best practices and the latest technologies, companies can improve their environmental and social performance. Publicize your progress and actively share your successes with all stakeholders. This is how companies demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and responsible business practices and build trust.  

Conclusion: Actively managing rankings on environmental, social, and ethical engagement creates multiple opportunities for companies to strengthen the most important currency in business: Trust. Therefore, our appeal: Don't leave this potential on the streets and make sure you make positive headlines.

Read german edition:   kommunikationsmanager-von_der_strasse_ins_Wirtschaftsmagazin.pdf


Hari Ramachandran
social_circle_linked_in social_circle_xing

Steffen Rufenach
social_circle_linked_in social_circle_xing