Corporate activism is both an opportunity and risk, with Council members acknowledging both sides of the debate in equal measure.
There is widespread acknowledgement that corporate activism is expected by consumers, but is also very hard to do well.
Authenticity is the key, with campaigns that are true to your corporate values having the greatest chance of success.
In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy made a speech in which he referred to a Chinese curse “may he live in interesting times”. The world was an uncertain place in the 1960s, with risk and opportunity both abundant.
It seems history is very much repeating itself as social and political disruption gathers pace, alongside the myriad opportunities being created by the digital economy.
So what’s the role of business given this backdrop? Can it be a force for progressive change in a world where anti-establishment beliefs are in the ascendancy? Or, indeed, will more companies choose to adopt a tone of ‘regressive activism’, for equally pragmatic or idealistic motives? More fundamentally, can the voice of business even be heard when the prism of fake news is applied to so much communication?
Well, Council members believe that businesses do have a licence, or even an obligation, to speak out on the big socio-political and cultural issues of the day (the environment, tolerance and diversity, and social justice are most often mentioned).
This is nothing new – think of Lever Brothers, or Carnegie and Rockefeller in the US. In a world that seems more connected, but more polarised, than ever, the pressure is growing on businesses to connect with people in an authentic and meaningful way — to tackle issues that really matter to society as a whole rather than focusing purely on the bottom line.
In large part, Council members attribute this pressure to the growing expectations of customers, opinion formers and especially employees, who want to understand more about a company’s purpose and values, before they invest their money, time or goodwill. Nowadays what your business stands for is as important as what it sells. People want reassurance that businesses can be on their side, understand their issues and be prepared to fight their corner.
This is borne out by a 2016 Ipsos study across 23 countries, in which 63% of the public said they tend to buy brands that reflect their personal values – up from 54% in 2014. And in fast-growing economies such as India, China and Indonesia, the proportion was higher still.
Council members tend to agree. More than half (56%) say their consumers expect them to take a stand on socio-political issues, against a quarter (23%) who disagree.
In reality, of course, decisions about when and how to take a particular stand are complex. But we can distil the views of the Reputation Council into five guiding principles.
1. Above all, be relevant and authentic.
Any public position must reflect the genuine purpose, values and actions of the company. To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg, focus on the fundamentals. Trust in businesses (along with other elites) is low, there’s lots of noise, and people are quick to sniff out self-interested, trivialising or opportunistic positions.
On the other hand, a stance which is aligned with a strong social purpose that is true to your values can bring benefits beyond the purely altruistic – creating a real connection with customers, helping to attract the best talent and leading to better engagement with influencers. A clear social purpose also acts as a road map, clearly outlining the issues a business will, and will not, engage on (particularly useful guidance when resources are limited).
2. Practice what you preach.
Any stance will lack credibility if the business can’t show a track record of action. If you’re taking a stand on diversity, you’d better be sure you measure up within your own business. And wherever possible, show the tangible value of your work to people’s lives.
The companies which Council members most admire are agents of change, not bandwagon-jumpers. Qantas’ campaign in support of same-sex marriage in Australia, despite opposition from some influential stakeholders, is cited by a number of Council members as a genuine, powerful example.
3. Don’t get party political.
Council members are strongly of the view that companies should avoid
issues which are closely aligned with party political agendas – at least publicly. In the main, such themes (Brexit and the Trump presidency are mentioned a lot) are seen as too polarising, too short-term and above all too risky for corporates to get embroiled in. But as major social and cultural movements become increasingly politicised, this may be a fine distinction for activist companies to negotiate.
4. Understand the risks.
Taking a bold stand will be inherently divisive, and can be a bruising experience. It might bring rewards, but it will definitely carry risks. Three in five Council members (59%) believe the benefits of taking a stand are greater than ever. But three quarters (77%) say the risks are greater too. So it’s important to be selective. But if an issue lies at the heart of your corporate purpose, and the expectations of your stakeholders, then not speaking out may be the bigger risk.
5. Not every company has to be a direct social activist.
Council members often have to think about how a particular position will play out in different global markets, or among stakeholders with conflicting expectations, or have to work within regulatory restrictions on what they can say.
These businesses may have less of an appetite for controversy, perhaps preferring to engage collectively via trade associations or industry bodies. However, is important to bear in mind that they still feel they are engaging constructively on important issues – perhaps not taking such an overt, confrontational stand, but still having a principled point of view and being part of the discussion.
Activist consumers and stakeholders increasingly demand to know where corporations stand on the issues which matter to them. They are looking for leadership that places social progress (in whatever way they define it) at the heart of the corporate agenda.
However, speaking out carries risks and can be divisive. But if it genuinely reflects the social purpose and values of the business, and is backed up with evidence of action, the reward can be a powerful, positive impact on reputation and relationships.
Methodology: 127 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between April and August 2017.