No other business sector has more cultural relevance than media. Media shapes perception, but public perception deeply affects the media industry. Because of this, media companies need to identify the social discussions and issues in society and find a balance in addressing them without alienating their audience.
New research, Media Materiality 2022, conducted by the Responsible Media Forum with consultant Carnstone Partners Ltd, identifies the material sustainability issues for the media sector in the UK, Europe, and North America based on a three-tier research plan:
- Reviews of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting frameworks, investor indices, and recent (2019 or later) materiality assessments published by companies participating (Axel Springer, BBC, Dentsu, ITV, and others) in the Responsible Media Forum.
- Interviews with senior sustainability practitioners from media companies, including advertising, broadcast, entertainment providers, news publishing, and telecommunications.
- Interviews with external experts, including ESG thought-leaders, investors, policymakers, non-governmental, organizations, and third sector (non-profits, social enterprises, cooperatives, etc.).
Identifying material issues
To build trust between a media company and its target audience, a company needs to take responsibility for its role in, and take a stand on, meaningful issues. There are consequences when a company fails to act. For example, Disney and its CEO, Bob Chapek face backlash due to company’s donations to Florida politicians who support the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Critics of Disney felt that that the company did not stand up for its LGBTQ employees, cast members, and guests. And fallout thus far has included widespread media coverage, employee walkouts and a public apology.
These sorts of situations are becoming increasingly prevalent. Thus, it is critical for organizations to understand the issues that are significant to staff, stakeholders, and their customers.
Responsible Media Forum defines material issues as “financially significant over the short to medium term.” These have the potential “to affect a key financial indicator, e.g., profits or revenue, by around five percent or more within two years.” These issues were found to be material: climate change, cyber security data privacy, diversity, equity & inclusion, people management, responsible content, skills development, sustainable value chain, and well-being.
Interestingly, both fake news and net neutrality are no longer identified as material issues as they were in the 2018 report. Important material issues for publishers to incorporate into their best practices.
Responding to material issues
- While the media’s carbon footprint is relatively small, integrating climate change content can encourage behavioral shifts in society.
- Data privacy is an essential practice of media companies. With privacy regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), becoming standard practices, publishers should communicate how they collect and use consumer data.
- In 2018, the Responsible Media Forum now includes “equity” as part of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Equity refers to the creation of a level playing field and increased commitment to diversity in both developing and retaining talent and entry-level recruitment. This is an important issue among those under 40 years old. DCN’s research on Gen Z Digital Media Attitudes, Values & Behavior shows that both Gen Z and Gen Y see this as the foremost issue companies should care about today.
- Responsible content is crucial for publishers. Media companies are responsible for their content across their portfolios and usage of intermediaries. Related concerns include diversity of output, editorial compliance, creative independence, transparent and responsible editorial policies, freedom of expression, impartial and & balanced output, and promotion of causes.
- Media companies must invest in their employees. Skill development, including training and mentoring, are strong retention tactics, especially against tech platforms.
- A sustainable value chain is important to manage. Media companies need to manage the upstream and downstream of their supply chain beyond their own needs to support.
- The 2018 report expanded the definition of well-being to include a focus on mental health. With the Pandemic and employees working from home, it’s no surprise that mental stress is an integral part of the wellness category.
Other areas to watch
In addition, the Forum identified three additional categories to determine whether an issue did not meet its materiality threshold but still represented an important matter.
- Strategic: an issue that can significantly affect the ability of the company to deliver its strategy in the medium to long term.
- Operational: an issue that matters for internal, reputational, and efficiency but is neither material nor strategic.
- Emerging: an issue that is not yet widely on the radar of a company but is increasing in importance and expected to become a material or strategic issue within the next two years.
Media plays a critical role in reflecting and responding to the needs of society. This report provides a starting point for media companies to access material issues and other key areas of potential concern in order to better meet audience expectations.