Growing pressure for companies to demonstrate corporate and social responsibility has implications for how you conduct your corporate communications. Bennett Freeman offers some lessons in achieving credibility.
Why Honesty Is The Best Policy by Bennett Freeman
As the twin agenda of accountability and sustainability gains momentum and traction, there are a number of implications for corporate communications that should be apparent.
Most corporate managements and communications professionals understand the basics of the corporate responsibility agenda and its potential impact, for better or worse, on the reputations of their companies and clients.
But not all are comfortable with integrating these issues into their communications strategies and addressing the demands of stakeholders to demonstrate accountability and their commitment to sustainability. They are frankly challenged by the demands of credible, transparent reporting and by the dynamics of stakeholder engagement – and by the perception that they can never do enough to satisfy NGOs in particular as their companies must remain focused on delivering solid business results.
The most effective corporate responsibility and sustainability communications and reporting offer stakeholders a series of snapshots of a company’s commitment and performance as works in progress. This kind of approach is consistent with the evolving spirit of corporate responsibility as a continuing process, one that values a willingness to tackle tough long-term challenges over satisfaction with positive short-term results.
In late 2003, Burson-Marsteller released the study NGO Perspectives on Corporate Reputation and Responsibility
, in which we identified key elements of credible reporting and communications based on a survey of nearly 50 advocacy and community-based groups based in the US. The results were revealing then as to the key factors from the NGOs’ perspective that contribute to the link between corporate reputation and corporate responsibility. The top four factors identified by the NGOs were reporting on non-compliance, poor performance or significant challenges; comprehensive performance metrics; third-party verification by independent groups or assurance firms; and standardization of reporting across a company’s businesses.
The key finding – that NGOs attach the greatest significance to a company’s willingness to acknowledge non-compliance, poor performance or significant problems – presents a tough challenge to the cultures of Corporate America and Corporate Canada that have long placed a premium on the ability to demonstrate concrete results and clear “wins”. If NGOs believe that “honesty with stakeholders” is truly the top driver of corporate reputation (as we found), then our data delivered a clear message to companies: be candid about your problems and non-traditional stakeholders will be more willing to recognize your progress.
The essential point is that the sophisticated, contemporary accountability and sustainability agendas attach value and credibility to identifying dilemmas as well as solutions, to raising tough questions as well as to providing clear answers. To be credible, corporate communications – whether CSR reports, stakeholder dialogue or media relations – must become comfortable with imperfection and uncertainty, even if doing so runs counter to the absolute confidence that companies try to project to financial analysts and the media.
Two major multinational brands have got it right in the last year and, as a result, changed the rules of the game for corporate responsibility reporting. Gap’s first social responsibility report, released last May, disclosed issue-byissue patterns of violations of its code by suppliers in over 50 countries – and by doing so demonstrated the vitality and credibility of its global compliance process. Nike took this approach a step further in its report released in April by disclosing the names and addresses of over 700 approved factories supplying its brand products around the world. Between them, these two companies have set a new standard for transparency that will likely become the norm over time across the footwear and apparel industries and beyond.
Based on this analysis and my experience, I believe that the public relations and corporate responsibility worlds should share an interest in aligning corporate reputation with a post- CSR agenda that is increasingly focused on accountability and sustainability – and increasingly integrated with corporate strategy. Let me offer a list of 10 maxims to help PR professionals, in both the corporate and agency worlds, align the reputations of their companies and clients with their social responsibility commitments and stakeholder expectations in mutually-reinforcing ways. To read the 10 maxims, please download the full report
(pdf, 296 KB)