Ipsos Corporate Reputation

KEY AUDIENCES: STAKEHOLDERS & INFLUENCERS

It is clear from our conversations with Council members that the profile, influence and importance of stakeholder groups are continually shifting and evolving. The vast majority of Council members name several stakeholder groups that have become increasingly important in recent years. Many point to the emergence and growth of some new influential audiences, driven by social media giving a louder voice to a wider group of audiences, including the public;

“It gets back to the whole social media piece. Everyone has a megaphone and can be heard. We have to pay closer attention and be more nimble to respond and engage.”

While recognising the growth in new influential stakeholders, many Council members also stress that this has not diminished the role and importance of traditional stakeholders (e.g. in government or media). Interviews highlight that it’s not a case of new stakeholders pushing aside the old players, but instead that there is now a larger range of influential stakeholders for corporate communicators to engage and manage.

WHICH STAKEHOLDERS ARE BECOMING MORE / LESS INFLUENTIAL?

A range of different audiences are recognised by Council members as becoming more influential, but leading the way are customers and employees, closely followed by government/politicians and the general public. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and investors are also commonly mentioned.

CUSTOMERS

While many explained the increased importance of customers as being the audience which ultimately buy their products and services (“We’re not an NGO, we’re not the government, we’re a company that makes products. We’re here to serve the customers.”), others point to the fact that customers are becoming more aware and vocal on socio-political issues;

Customers, maybe over the last 10 years, have become more important than ever, only because they are such an important voice in a lot of the debates on health or the environment or packaging or whatever it might be.”

Similarly, the wider public’s influence is growing as they become more organised and sophisticated in getting their voices and views heard on socio-political issues;

The informed public, the political and socially interested ones have not really played a part in the past but have now become more important.”

Several corporate communicators observed the growth of “individual activists”, highlighting the influence that one voice can now have;

One of the areas we have seen massively grow is individual activism and how that can actually be really quite challengingas a company, we are not set up to meet with all these individuals because otherwise that is all we will do. And it has really required us to look at what information can we produce that will be easy to send to these individuals and engage with them but not necessarily require us to have meeting after meeting after meeting.”

While engaging with an individual is one solution, many also turn to NGOs as a partner to help influence the views of activists and “shape the external landscape”. NGOs are also seen to be increasingly important to understand the views of consumers while also providing, as one member stated, “a useful sounding board for us as we are developing plans”. Just like the wider public and individual activists, NGOs are becoming increasingly organised and influential on socio-political issues.

EMPLOYEES

Closely related to the growth of individual activism and engagement, is the extent to which employees are now taken “much more seriously as a sophisticated stakeholder audience”.

“Employees have risen to the top as far as important audiences. They were an afterthought, even a couple of years ago. Understanding that employees are at the heart of an organization – that they’re the ones who drive the culture and the results – is definitely a trend.”

Employees are increasingly being thought of as credible communicators which companies need to “help empower as potential ambassadors for the business”. There is also a recognition that taking good care of the workforce can lead to a better-run company and being able to recruit the best possible talent.

Our research shows that employees are seen to be a trusted source of information. Organisations should therefore leverage the potential influence that their employees hold as credible communicators.

However, to do so, employees need to be both empowered and enabled. Similarly, employees need to receive enough knowledge about their organisation’s values and aspirations, so they feel confident enough to discuss these with others. Messaging should be aligned across the business and succinct in layman’s terms, so that it can be easily digestible and easily relayed by employees. Inviting external stakeholders to facilities or events where they can engage with employees is also viewed as an effective way to give voice to this increasingly important group.

GOVERNMENT / POLITICIANS

Despite being considered a traditional stakeholder audience, many corporate communicators report that politicians are increasingly important to them. As with the public and NGOs, some politicians are also increasingly vocal and impactful through their use of social media platforms, and occasionally the views shared on such platforms can be disruptive, damaging and misleading;

Government has gotten more vocal. They were always important, but now they’re very reactionary, so you have to be able to anticipate what they will be reactionary about.”

Customers [are] more informed and empowered, but sometimes they do not have enough information to analyze properly. Politicians are taking advantage of some distorted information in an opportunistic and populist way.”

Politicians’ ability to determine license to operate is also cited as a key consideration, with corporate communicators working hard to ensure their company’s views are heard in policy and regulatory discussions;

We actually don’t want to be the one that the politicians have in their sights, but we do want to make sure that we’re at the table contributing to the policy discussion.”

Council members note that the importance of politicians ebbs and flows depending on elections and other key political events. During a normal election cycle, the work of corporate communicators is strategic and deliberate, whereas when things are more unpredictable at election time “there is almost no point… because there is going to be such a huge turnover…when we get through the election there is a huge task to be done in terms of mapping your stakeholders and working out where the balance of power lies and where we need to focus.” With increased political uncertainty around the globe, communicators are having to adapt and evolve their approach for engagement with this important group.

MEDIA

In contrast to views about politicians, there is much less consensus when it comes to the media. Council members are split on the importance of this group, being just as likely to say it’s on the rise as to say it is diminishing. Some feel that the media continues to be a key channel of information that can be used to communicate a company’s message;

I wouldn’t underestimate the relationship with traditional media either, you do so at your peril. We try to invest in the right amount of time with various traditional media audiences…they are important allies for us.”

However, others feel that while traditional media continues to be important, its influence is less than in the past, largely due to the growth of social media and online sources of information;

They are still important, but I do think they are less influential than they used to be, definitely they take up less of my time than they would have done 5-10 years ago. There are just a lot of sources now online where people use and reuse content and they just don’t necessarily want to pay for it.”

To a large extent, the perceived importance of the media will vary from across sector, issue and outlet. For communicators in today’s environment, the key is knowing which media voices have influence on the issues that matter to your organisation and targeting engagement efforts accordingly.

Considering the growing voice of the public, we asked Council members how they go about engaging with this audience. Members highlight the need for a targeted approach, where budgets allow:

I think it’s fundamental to have a specific approach for each audience. Specific to different segments…To move away from something generic and closer to particularities.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that different parts of the general public will receive different messages; in fact, often the messaging across audiences will be aligned, but the formats and channels of delivering the messaging will vary by audience;

We tailor messaging to each audience; however, we have core messaging that our messages all ladder from to create unique messages.”

While it is common practice for brand and marketing functions to tailor communications towards their core target customer audience, corporate communicators are also increasingly taking a targeted approach in their communications with the public. While the concept of the engaged citizen and early adopters is not a new one, it is especially relevant as a means of concentrating messaging towards a group of people who are most likely to absorb the messaging, react to the messaging, and influence the views of others. Understanding the views of these engaged publics can also act as an early indicator of future trends, as they are more likely to be ahead of the curve in terms of their views, awareness of issues, and behaviour;

These are the engaged, interested, active people within their local communities and the broader industry circles. If we can reach them, and if they can understand what we’re doing, then that helps create grounds for them.”

However, as one Council member points out, it is important to identify and understand the characteristics of the most engaged segment of the public, and to do so regularly as their profile can change over time;

The difficulty is in identifying them because they are not the same as they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago, now. So being able to identify the right slice of humanity that can give information in advance, and then gain time for companies. It’s a difficult task.”

Closely aligned with the increased need to treat the engaged public as a core stakeholder group, is the growing importance of social media influencers;

Very important, an extremely important audience because they really have the power to influence both consumption and behaviour. And they influence both from the point of view of selling our products and advancing our causes. Digital influencers are extremely important. I think the digital influencer will gain even more relevance.”

When engaging with social media influencers, Council members talk about how they first go about identifying and selecting a small pool of highly relevant and influential individuals;

It is about the quality of audience really, are we talking to the right people.”

The conversation shouldn’t be one-way. While some focus on engaging with influencers as a catalyst or ambassador to get messaging across, it is also worth listening to what influencers and their followers have to say. As a member states, this can lead to exceptional levels of insight;

I have been working with 10 or 15 micro influencers who might have less than 1,000 followers and actually their network can be exceptionally interesting as well because you get some very rich in-depth engagement with some very interesting insights.”

However, not all corporate communicators engage with social media influencers. Some feel that the financial costs are too great or that social media influencers are “less impactful now”. One Council member also warns of the danger caused by interacting with such influencers, pointing to the risks of handing over control of your reputation to social media ambassadors, and emphasising the need for careful monitoring when going down this route;

Every time you interact with someone, you create a contract with someone, you are transferring the responsibility to that person. In other words, I would need to closely monitor the integrity, the behaviour of my ambassadors.”

Similarly, it is important to underline the fact that Council members are far less likely to name social media influencers as an increasingly important stakeholder group than they are to name other audiences such as employees, politicians, the wider public and NGOs. Indeed, while social media has undoubtedly been a driver of change, Ipsos Corporate Reputation’s experience of working with stakeholder audiences highlights that direct engagement remains the most effective way to ensure a voice on your key issues.

CONCLUSIONS

The increased breadth and influence of the stakeholder audiences with which communicators must now engage highlights the fact that building and protecting corporate reputation is a complex challenge. Communicators need to be adept at determining the difference between noise and influence, with resources directed accordingly to ensure effective relationships are built with the stakeholder groups that matter most. In mapping out their stakeholder audiences, the relative importance of each group should be determined by its level of influence over the issues affecting an organisations’ reputation, rather than the channel through which the influence is created. This is reflected in the experiences of Council members where traditional stakeholders are given as much consideration as emerging influencers. As technological change continues to give voice to new audiences, the ability to map, understand and prioritise stakeholder audiences will become increasingly important in determining corporate communications success.

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the S of ESG is coming under greater scrutiny

Actions on E, S and G in tandem remain essential to corporate reputation

As ESG has surged up the consumer agenda, new Ipsos data shows that improving society is identified as the top priority for multinationals among consumers across the globe – perhaps not surprising given the social implications of the pandemic. While fundamental issues such as safe working conditions are seen as most important here, each company should carefully consider how to adapt its operations to improve sustainable business practice. Companies should continue to pursue actions on all three pillars of ESG though. Not just because E and G remain critical in the public’s eyes, but also as it – as we should all know now – makes good business sense to do so.

Companies’ role in creating shared value

Companies are increasingly assessed on the extent to which they bring ‘net benefits’ to society. Especially among the financial community and the media there is a focus on ESG: companies’ performance on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues that come with doing business. Not just because you ultimately shoot yourself in the foot if you run out of the natural resources you need, treat your staff unfairly, or become wound up in corruption scandals. No, also because doing the right thing has BECOME a source of value creation. Not least, this is because we – ‘the public’, consumers and employees – pay more attention to what companies do or stand for than we did a decade ago – be that their efforts to increase staff diversity & inclusion, meeting net zero goals, or paying their fair share of taxes.

In March 2021 Ipsos asked consumers across 28 markets to rank ESG priorities for multinationals. While all three aspects, ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘G’, were seen as important, improving society (S) came out as the top priority, with 41% of the votes globally. Protecting the environment (E) followed at 31%, almost on equal footing with practicing good governance (G, 28%).

In 22 out of the 28 countries surveyed, improving society received the most picks as the top priority, with a majority of the vote share in Spain (54%), Poland (52%), Japan (52%) and Korea (50%).

These findings are not surprising in the context of COVID-19. Health & safety precautions in the workplace, as well as a desire for job security amid economic uncertainty, have, for many, become necessary concerns.

How should companies engage with the ‘S’?

Given the increased focus on the role of companies to contribute socially, where should they focus their efforts on the ‘S’ pillar of ESG?

Looking at which societal issues people want multinationals to address, our survey shows that improving working conditions and worker health & safety come top. This is true across all regions, from Europe to APAC, to Middle East-Africa, to LATAM through to North America. Potentially contributing here are new COVID-related concerns about ventilation, social distancing, face masks at work etc., on top of existing issues.   

Despite ample attention across (social) media for issues around gender equality and diversity, these topics came out lower down the list. Again, this holds true when looking in detail at the answers from people across different parts of the world. 

It’s impossible to give a blank slate answer to how companies can best create shared value on ‘S’. The priorities in the eyes of consumers listed above, give an idea. But what that means for each individual business is something that needs careful consideration. That’s why it’s so important for companies to engage with their stakeholders on these issues. Employees who feel their employer looks after them, will be more willing to go the extra mile: a ‘give’ for the ‘get’. Local communities who see that companies take their interests at heart, will be more open to dialogue and working together to create mutual benefits. Etcetera.

Ipsos advises businesses on how they should address ESG challenges and helps them to define, manage and communicate their priorities. A relevant example to multinationals is our advice on how to frame “benefits” of ESG strategies to consumers. As people aren’t driven by sustainability claims alone to take action (as they often feel they are doing enough already), it is most effective to couple these to an extra incentive personal to them. So instead of saying: “switch to renewable energy to reduce your carbon footprint” position this as “switch to renewable energy will save you money AND help you reduce your footprint”.

Finally, what’s left to say is that, as I have said before, investments in ESG issues should be financially responsible and prudent in their own right, giving shareholders a return on investment. Ultimately, genuine progress on ESG will help to protect companies’ social licence to operate and bolster their reputation.

For more information please contact:

Marloes Klop
Research Director, Corporate Reputation

Marloes.Klop@ipsos.com

Technical details about the survey

These are the results of a 28-market online survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 14,000 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey, and 16-74 in 23 other markets. The survey was fielded between 19 February and 5 March 2021.

The sample consists of approximately 500 individuals in each of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland), Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the US.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, mainland China, Colombia, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these markets should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.

The data is weighted so that each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the ‘difference’ appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls are calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 500 accurate to +/- 4.8 percentage points. For more information on the Ipsos use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website.

The tech sector always bets that product quality will override privacy concerns

Probably the most common criticism levelled at the tech sector is the one about privacy – the sense that the tech sector, or government enabled by the tech sector, are collecting far more data on individuals than they should, and that the data is then being sold or used for unclear purposes. While the tech sector sticks closely to its cherished, and well-proven, ideology that positive user experience nearly always mitigates these concerns in practice, it is also true that the concerns of pro-privacy groups within society, and government, are getting louder and more prominent.

Stark evidence of this can be seen across two, relatively recent, product launches. Both of which have attracted major criticisms from privacy and digital rights campaigners, while at the same time being major commercial success stories.

Concerns around business and government use of personal information is high on a global scale

Let’s look at those concerns first – the 2020 Ipsos Global Trends survey[1] shows in stark detail the level of concern that exists around the world about what is being done by companies and governments using the personal data being collected from people when they go online.

A rise in private sector surveillance

So, bearing such concerns in mind, let’s examine the news coverage of Amazon’s Ring product line over the last few weeks. Ring is a video doorbell system, which seems innocuous, but with millions sold what you end up with is a potential surveillance network the size of which has never been seen before, and all in the hands of Amazon. And what has Amazon done with it? For one it initially entered into partnership with a large number of law enforcement agencies in the US that allowed them access to the videos it records without a warrant being required[2]. To quote from the Guardian, because of Ring “law enforcement are given a backdoor entry into private video recordings of people in residential and public space that would otherwise be protected under the fourth amendment”. While Amazon has recently extended its moratorium on sharing its facial recognition software with police, a ban it says that will stay in place until Congress creates the appropriate safeguards, it is puzzling why a similar approach to sharing data with law enforcement has not been adopted with Ring. Especially given the high-profile critique of the product by former Amazon software engineer Max Eliaser;

“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back[3]

Now Amazon can certainly say that they are following the law as it exists and that the capabilities and requirements of the Ring product are all made available to the consumer at the point of sale. Amazon has acknowledged some of this controversy and has consequentially changed how police ask for video content, now requiring the police to ask for footage via the Ring Neighbors app, allowing local users to comment or assist as they judge best[4]. However, to a background of high consumer concern about how personal data is being used and with Ring cameras being described as “a threat to privacy at best and a danger to society and democracy at worst[5]”, critics may accuse Amazon of not thinking product features through a bit more carefully. That said, when they have a product that has shifted many millions of units in the US alone it is clear that, as ever, product utility quashes privacy concerns at point of purchase. A fact underlined by the 4.6 rating the Ring 3 has on Amazon.com, a rating based on 33,000+ reviews.

From surveillance to tracking

Enough with Amazon, I hear the tech fans cry, that’s just one of the major brands. Well, let's turn to Apple and its brand-new gadget - the AirTag. A device sold as the means to find things you have lost, via a Bluetooth signal that alerts sympathetic devices that are web-enabled. Perfect for finding your luggage, your car, or, as has been pointed out by a wide range of news agencies, the person you are stalking.

Apple has attempted to build in safeguards to prevent “unwanted tracking” but the slew of media coverage over the last few weeks that point out how ineffective those safeguards are in practice probably shows how little thought the designers of this product put into thinking about the downsides of this product compared to the potential upsides. The warning sound that alerts the user to unwanted tracking is easily missed, and while people with an iPhone might be able to find unwanted AirTags those with Android phones cannot (right now).

While plenty of apps, charmingly called “stalkerware”, exist to help one person track another, and there are other products similar to AirTags where the manufacturers have put far less effort into stopping them from being used for nefarious purposes than Apple has. However, part of the surprise here is that, as The Washington Post articulates well “AirTags show how even Apple, a company known for emphasizing security and privacy, can struggle to understand all the risks involved in creating tech that puts everyday things online[6]. This disconnect between a company that is often praised for its firm stance on personal privacy and the potential misuse of this product is vast and easily fixed with little effort. As Wired suggests “Apple leadership needs to give abuse survivors and experts a central place in its development process, incorporating their feedback from the start. Otherwise, the company will continue to make products that endanger people more than they help[7]”.

Responding to this wave of criticism[8] Apple has announced some changes – reducing the amount of time before an AirTag starts beeping once it is away from its owner's iPhone and promising an Android application as well. Just like Amazon with Ring its good to see Apple responding to the issue, but it again raises the question of how a product like this got to market with these issues when Apple usually takes these issues so seriously. That said, just as with Amazon’s Ring it is highly likely that this product will sell incredibly well despite any privacy concerns due to its sheer usefulness. In fact one industry analyst in Forbes[9] confidently predicts its success, and possible billion dollar revenue for Apple, due to the vast number of devices the product can connect to and the popularity of the Find My app among Apple product users.

Consumers value privacy – as well as products that make their lives easier

Ultimately the tech sector knows its customers very, very well and knows that while there are people who may not buy these products because of privacy issues there are far more people who will ignore those concerns and buy them anyway. Negative media coverage of the like described above will have very little impact on the level of individual customers. That said, increased media focus on perceived privacy issues reinforces some of the negative reputational themes that affect the tech sector and the brands within it and are currently fuelling many of the debates that are ongoing around the world among legislators thinking of new regulation. Innovative new products that skirt the edge of what is appropriate, or legal, when it comes to privacy is one thing, as long as they are profitable, but fuelling the fires of regulation is another. The tech sector may want to ponder this.

Article links

[1] Markets: Argentina, Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. 

Method The survey for the 2020 edition was carried out online using the Ipsos Online Panel, and face to-face interviewing in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. The results are weighted to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to the most recent country census data. Total global data has not been weighted by population size, but are simply a country average.

Fieldwork dates June-July 2019

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us

[3] https://amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com/amazon-employees-share-our-views-on-company-business-f5abcdea849

[4] https://www.cnet.com/home/security/rings-police-problem-didnt-go-away-it-just-got-more-transparent/

[5] https://thenextweb.com/news/amazon-engineer-ring-should-be-shut-down-immediately-and-not-brought-back

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/05/05/apple-airtags-stalking/

[7] https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-apples-air-tags-are-a-gift-to-stalkers/

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57351554

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/timbajarin/2021/04/20/airtags-are-apples-next-billion-dollar-business/?sh=4f60c605d187

For more information please contact:

Carl Phillips
Director & Global Stakeholder Research Lead, Corporate Reputation

Carl.Phillips@ipsos.com