It’s Not Just What You Do, But Why You Do It

Maintaining Stakeholder Trust in an Internet Economy

Hold your breath: Which major company has most recently fallen out of public favor? Top headlines and Twitter Moments seem to tell a new story every day – right next to certain stories that keep reviving. In an age when the court of public opinion is conducted by a virtual jury of billions, how can companies even dream of staying out of the hot seat? Can any corporate action, however isolated, escape microscopic scrutiny?

Taking A Stand

In the past month alone, employees of giants Wayfair, Ogilvy and Walmart have walked out in protest of company policies or contracts that did not align with their values. Of course, companies cannot hope to align with every stakeholder; but we can certainly expect opposing viewpoints will make themselves heard – and demand a thoughtful, authentic response from the C-suite.

Last year’s Edelman Earned Brand Study found that nearly two-thirds of consumers worldwide will buy – or boycott – a brand based on how its values align with their beliefs. And they assess those values not through boilerplate language on a website, but through action. As CSR trendwatcher Thomas Bognanno points out in Forbes last fall, key stakeholders – including consumers and employees – expect companies to take stands: “Companies can no longer be silent when it comes to social issues.”

For example, more than 3,600 leaders from business, government and nonprofits have joined #WeAreStillIn, declaring their commitment to climate action. Many of the companies already had carbon reduction goals; becoming #WeAreStillIn signatories aligned those goals with a cause.

The same can be said for companies that have sought and received recognition from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation as being among the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality.” By aligning themselves with the Human Rights Campaign, they elevated their platforms from compliance to commitment.

Doing the Right Thing for The Right Reason

Your company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report (CSR) clearly shows commitments to environmental sustainability, workplace diversity and inclusion, and community. It’s transparent, with measurable goals and results to prove your company is a “good corporate citizen.”

But you’re not feeling the love from your stakeholders…

Your organization just endured an embarrassing incident. But it’s an isolated action, not indicative of your organization’s values or culture. That defense is supported by formal policies, programs and long-standing record. Nonetheless, as a leader, you recognize it happened on your watch. You take all the right crisis communications steps, including changes designed to prevent a reoccurrence.

But your stakeholders remain skeptical…

What went wrong? Protecting natural resources, creating an equitable workplace and giving back have become the baseline. Policies that promote a workplace safe from harassment or discrimination are a prerequisite. You talked about what you do, but not why you do it.

That’s not to say reporting on CSR doesn’t have value. Quite the contrary, stakeholders want proof of corporate citizenship. A crisis communication plan remains critical to protecting reputation. But there’s a difference between doing the right thing and doing the right thing for the right reason.

I recently attended a townhall in which a respected organization responded to criticism over its handling of sexual assault. “We are making changes to our policies, first because we must, and second, because we should,” they said. The room erupted: “Your priorities are out of order!” Were the changes driven by external pressure (regulations, compliance, public criticism and lost revenue) or by the values and ethics community members hold dear?

What Matters to Consumers Determines Trust

Last year, the SC Johnson company partnered with consultancy firm GlobeScan to release “Building Trust: Why Transparency Must Be Part of the Equation.” Based on the study, GlobeScan identified seven trends shaping transparency. What jumps out here? Transparency is defined by consumers. In other words, transparency is responding to the questions and issues that matter to your stakeholders. And stakeholder expectations of transparency – and their influence in choosing how to respond – is amplified by easy access to information and digital social networking.

Authentic Motives Lead to Authentic Stories for Your Brand

That is making it increasingly challenging for companies to build and strengthen trust by taking a safe and neutral approach to CSR. However, the brands that proactively tell their CSR stories – and authentically act them out – shape the conversations.

But here is a key: going beyond the baseline expectations for trust doesn’t necessarily require taking a stand on the most visible issues. In fact, that may not be right for your brand. As Bognanna also writes:

… aligning a corporate brand with social issues can backfire if it’s not done thoughtfully and with authenticity, so be sure to understand your brand, measure stakeholder interest and align with issues that resonate.

– Bognanna

Finding the Right Alignment to Tell Your Story

Business is increasingly done in an arena under billions of thumbs ready for an “up” or “down” verdict. That vote, when it has lasting impact on a brand, comes down to whether consumers believe the company walks the walk.

Authenticity is absolutely key – and that may mean your company stays quiet on more controversial issues. As part of our discovery process, we identify natural alignments across our clients’ specific contributions to the community, brand and stakeholders’ expectations. That is how we create an authentic story that resonates. Philip Kotler, considered the “father of modern marketing,” famously remarked: “A good company offers excellent products and services. A great company also offers excellent products and services but also strives to make the world a better place.” At the time, he was referencing transformative products and services that improve people’s lives, but his quote also predicted stakeholder expectations that what companies do internally should also drive positive change externally.

GillespieHall VP of Operations ◆ Consumer Behaviorist ◆ Digital PR & Marketing Strategist

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