Alex Heath is Edelman’s Managing Director of U.S. Social Impact & Sustainability and the New York Office Corporate Affairs Lead. In this role, he advises global leaders operating at the nexus of purpose, corporate responsibility, social impact, sustainability, ESG, communications and stakeholder engagement to build trust between business and society.

In corporate communications, a shift has occurred: towards purpose, towards ESG and towards impact. Despite the ongoing debate surrounding the term ESG and its politicization, there's a consensus among communicators that ESG is now a critical portfolio component for relevance. Enterprise leaders, including communications leaders, are increasingly aligned in recognizing the critical need for action to underpin corporate communications within the realms of social impact and sustainability.

The role of the Chief Communications Officer (CCO) and the corporate communications function has evolved, now increasingly connected to shaping strategy, creating action, and delivering performance through stakeholder engagement - a significant expansion over having been historically limited to the latter of those three. The 2023 The Future of Corporate Communications study underscores this transformation, revealing that two-thirds (67%) of CCOs say they partner with their enterprise’s head of sustainability to support ESG and impact strategy, and three-quarters (75%) assert that ESG has become fully or mostly integrated into the communications function.

In this moment of complexity, business recommits to purpose.

As stakeholder pressures continue to play out, C-Suites and Boards of Directors are leaning into their corporate purpose to navigate strategic action and communications. From my vantage point advising clients on social impact and sustainability strategies, it’s evident that this renewed focus on purpose bodes well for the comms function.

While communications still plays a role in execution, the data shows that 86% of CCOs and communications leaders expect their teams to engage all stakeholders in furthering the corporate purpose, with more than half (57%) tasked with nurturing a sense of purpose and meaning among employees.

However, communications now operates meaningfully before execution as well: one-fifth of communications leaders (21%) say they are responsible for ensuring the corporate purpose drives decision-making and strategy. Conversations with CCOs further reinforced the heightened alignment between boards, CEOs, and their CCOs, emphasizing that those entrusted with safeguarding the business’ reputation must be central to purpose-related decisions, strategy formulation and execution.

Stay the course.

It is becoming abundantly clear, much like the increasingly frequent weather events brought on by climate change, that every issue and challenge we face in the world is an ecosystem challenge. Even, perhaps especially, executive leadership.

No single actor, industry, or sector can solve these issues alone. Nevertheless, the private sector has a distinct and pivotal role in addressing some of the world’s most intricate challenges, beginning with its own cross-functional collaboration as the proving ground. And even while the private sector faces headwinds on multiple fronts, CCOs can and must stay the course. Year after year, Edelman’s Trust Barometer data continually points to great expectations for companies and brands, and greater levels of trust when business takes and communicates authentic action.

Communications leaders shoulder the responsibility of navigating today’s complex internal and external stakeholder relationships, including advising the CEO on strategy, collaborating with the Chief Sustainability Officer on concrete actions and rallying the entire communications function to engage audiences effectively. Recommitting to corporate purpose serves as a unifying force, aligning these diverse engagements in the same direction. It also acts as a shield against the headwinds that teams encounter, facilitating smoother engagement across the complex multistakeholder ecosystem – both within and beyond the enterprise.

This is the path forward for communications functions seeking enduring competitive advantage and for enterprises aiming to drive meaningful change at scale. It’s a journey that involves reaffirming commitment to purpose, unwavering dedication to action as the bedrock of communication, and inclusively bringing audiences along. The shift towards impact signifies a shift towards stakeholder capitalism, and CCOs stand at the forefront of this transformative wave.