Over the next couple of weeks, conversations among global elites will be dominated by Davos, with the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss Alps taking place from the 21st– 24th of January. Over the course of the event, some of the world’s largest and most well-known companies will shed new light on their “purpose” and corporate citizenship initiatives.
While Davos always features debates on climate and corporate responsibility, these topics feature explicitly on the agenda this year, as the forum meets to discuss the 2020 theme of “stakeholders for a coherent and sustainable future”.
In recent years, businesses have woken up to the notion of good corporate citizenship and how it can impact their bottom line. This is a far cry from the days of organisations sponsoring an animal at their local zoo and calling it Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). While some pioneering businesses were genuinely concerned about the world they operated in and had committed to doing something about it, there were also unscrupulous organisations which were quickly criticised and called out for ‘green-washing’ – a term coined in the 1980s to describe corporates’ claims of being environmentally friendly that had little-to-no substance.
Today, conversations around corporate citizenship are much more advanced. The general public, and therefore consumers, are better educated and much more aware of the issues. What’s more, consumers are prepared to act with their buying power: if a brand is behaving in a way they don’t agree with, consumers will quickly find an alternative that better aligns with their views and values.
In January 2018, Blackrock’s Larry Fink wrote a letter to CEOs that ushered in a new way of thinking among corporate leaders. There had been a gradual shift in the preceding years which saw a growing number of values-based challengers taking market share from larger, established brands. More recently, the American group, Business Roundtable went against years of tradition and made a provocative statement on the role of business in society, claiming it is no longer about simply growing shareholder value, but investing in the interests of all stakeholders, from employees, to communities, to the environment.
In 2020, there’s a realisation among a significant proportion of organisations of the need to be thinking and talking about more than just shareholder returns. Their communications need to speak to corporate purpose and resonate with the full range of stakeholders that give them their ‘license to operate’.
While the phrase may be old, the next decade will undoubtedly see a resurgence in the notion that ‘being a good business is good for business’ as consumers flock to those brands recognised as good corporate citizens.
But how do organisations communicate that they are good corporate citizens? As it was back in the ‘80s, it’s not good enough just to claim that you are; you will quickly get called out. You need to show that you are.
Irrespective of the details, there are three key things you should remember when communicating your purpose and CSR credentials.
Authenticity Is Key
Unilever’s Alan Jope has already warned brands against ‘woke-washing’– aligning themselves to consumer values without merit for commercial gain. Jope told delegates at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, that brands highlighting purpose but not acting accordingly could “further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply”.
You don’t want to be called out for woke-washing, so before you start, make sure you assess and validate any claim you are going to make. Interrogate claims as your fiercest critics would. If you’re claiming an x% reduction in the use of single use plastic, make sure you know the previous figure, the current figure, and can articulate how the reduction was achieved. If you’re talking about reducing emissions, how have you calculated them? Is the method robust and independently verifiable?
Making a big claim, only for it to be proven false, can significantly damage a brand’s reputation, and so to paraphrase an old adage – measure thrice, check twice, send once.
When It Comes To Purpose, Show. Don’t Tell
Corporate sustainability initiatives can be difficult to communicate – finding the right tone being one of the hardest challenges. You don’t want to come across all ‘holier than thou’, but likewise you don’t want your stakeholders to shrug and think ‘so what?’. Finding the right balance is key to getting your story to resonate. One of the best ways to address this is by using your paid, shared, and owned channels to show your citizenship in action, rather than simply telling people what you’re doing.
Showcasing actions, outcomes and impacts is, generally speaking, far better than talking about inputs – the latter can feel like you’re force-feeding stakeholders a whole heap of uninspiring vegetables, rather than the interesting and inspiring snackable content they crave. Wherever possible, find ways in which other people can talk about your work – adding weight and third-party credibility to your CSR communications.
Make Good Use of Your Community
Citizenship involves being part of a community. This is as true for corporate citizenship as it is for any other type. Engaging with these communities will naturally be a part of CSR initiatives, but throughout this process your communications team (whether in-house or external) should be identifying those who may make strong advocates for the company and its work in these areas – either in marketing content, or in media engagement.
These people are usually stakeholders with a strong interest in the cause they are tackling, and as such make excellent, authoritative spokespeople on the topic. Building strong relationships with these stakeholders, educating them on your organisation’s work and the purpose and values that drive you, can help convert them into powerful brand advocates that will engage others and tell your sustainability story on your behalf.
When it comes to engaging with your stakeholders on purpose and values, there are a number of different approaches you can take, depending on the type of business involved and the specific values and actions in question.
Whatever your CSR communications plan centres on – be it an annual report, executive visibility, thought leadership, or a dedicated campaign on a particular cause, communications experts can help you plan and execute for maximum impact.
A version of this post first appeared on the Babel PR blog here.