Corporate Responsibility in the Age of Instability
by Luna Atamian, North American Head of Business Development
The rise of trade protectionism; The travel ban on Muslim-majority countries; Cybersecurity threats; The decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord; New healthcare policies; Food stamps cuts; Transgender troops ban.
Whether you agree with these changes or not–which is not the purpose of this article anyway- there is no doubt that the past few months have been disruptive for American corporations and society. These events have created a context of constant change and pressure, pushing companies to reevaluate their corporate responsibility strategies and communications. A growing number of corporations are already taking action, investing in causes such as the refugee crisis or diversity, setting and pursuing ever more ambitious climate targets, and addressing communications challenges.
“What is my stand on this issue? What do my stakeholders expect me to do or communicate about? Are my employees’ values aligned with the business? Should I have a position on political events? Do I communicate enough?“ These are only a few examples of legitimate questions corporations are trying to understand and answer. Of course, every company has a unique values system and it would be extremely challenging to say what “THE” answer is. However, it is possible to isolate three key actions which will help better navigate this environment.
1) Stakeholder engagement. Never too much.
Given the challenging sociopolitical environment corporations are operating in, external stakeholder engagement has never been more important than it is now. A robust engagement model is vital for companies to be able to understand and respond to a changing environment. Indeed, a structured approach to external stakeholder engagement will help provide an outside perspective on your strategy and therefore reduce some risks and make other risks, which may otherwise be unnoticed, transparent.
Yet, engaging stakeholders is often either ignored, underestimated or not effective. For instance, we have seen companies only engage with stakeholders they feel comfortable consulting with or apply the same engagement model to very different stakeholder groups e.g. media, academia, NGOs etc. It is therefore important to categorize your stakeholders into different groups, understand their specific needs and develop a structured engagement plan that is tailored to each group’s specific needs and expectations. And don’t forget, the best engagement plans and stakeholder relationships are the ones which create reciprocal value so it’s important to focus on what you will contribute to those relationships as well.
2) Employees are king. Keep them on your side.
Speaking about stakeholder engagement…employees are one of the most important stakeholder groups and employee engagement is a top business priority. Making sure your employees understand your business values will enable them to become real brand ambassadors. However, in order for employee engagement to be effective and tied to business performance, it is necessary to ensure that the alignment is taking place at every level of the company and is clearly communicated. While leadership set the overall vision, top managers are responsible for setting and communicating business objectives. Middle managers are responsible for creating specific objectives for employees that support broader goals. Finally, employees are given the tools to succeed, some autonomy, and accountability to meet tangible goals aligned with the overall vision. Hopefully, I am not saying anything surprising here… However, while many agree with this engagement process, they have yet to effectively conduct it.
3) Pick your battles strategically. It’s about quality, not quantity.
As mentioned previously, numerous and diverse topics have been at the center of attention such as climate change, diversity, the refugee crisis, health care etc. As a result, corporations have expressed support for causes they care about. However, it is important to strategically prioritize “hot” issues before publicly advocating for them. In other words, although it’s reflective of the company’s good intentions, advocating for too many issues at the same time – especially if they are not connected to the business operations, core values and stakeholder’s priorities- could actually be harmful to your reputation. Moreover, from a communications perspective, key messages might get lost and authenticity affected. And that’s why materiality or core issue prioritization remains crucial. By conducting a periodic materiality assessment, corporations can prioritize issues most important to the business and communicate accordingly. This ensures that corporations stay in touch with and respond to the information needs and expectations of stakeholders, while also addressing the issues of most importance to society.
In this age of instability, companies that follow these three steps will gain some measure of stability to guide them through these times.
To learn more about Salterbaxter’s approach to stakeholder engagement, employee engagement as well as core issue prioritization, feel free to reach out.
Salterbaxter helps companies and brands step up to the challenge of the changing relationship between business and society. We combine smart strategy, savvy insights and sharp creativity to help businesses do different things, not just say different things. We work with our clients across the whole spectrum of strategy and communications – from strategy insight and development to stakeholder engagement, influencer campaigns, and reporting programs.