February 18, 2020

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Progress on Corporate Sustainability: Are PR Advisers Part of the Problem?

While 50 percent of people trust business to do what is right, just 18 percent trust business leaders to tell the truth.


by Carol Cone, Global Practice Chair and Alex Thompson, EVP, Edelman Business + Social Purpose

Communicators reading the Guardian Sustainable Business US may have read Jo Confino’s piece, provocatively titled: Are PR advisers in danger of stifling progress on corporate sustainability?, with alarm. 

Alarm because the answer for some is a qualified “maybe,” followed by a rumbling, volcanic groundswell of “not if I have anything to do with it.”

Before we launch into explaining why, a quick note to recognize and thank The Guardian for launching Sustainable Business US. The erosion of resources focused on discussing “how American companies can rise to the sustainability challenges of our age” has been noted with concern by people who dedicate their working lives to “the increasing recognition that the business of business is much more than just business,” as The Guardian sets out to do.

Media: A Vital Partner in Driving Sustainable Business

When The New York Times decided to move its Dot Earth blog to its opinion pages, ostensibly to enable more discussion, some interpreted the decision as an indication that sustainability no longer commands status in the news agenda. If true, that is a worrying development, because facts matter.

Many who work in the U.S. are motivated by the chance to affect lasting change at scale. We welcome knowing that The Guardian will be exerting influence on the sustainable business discussion in the national discourse, regardless of political affiliations, because bolstering the number of informed, brave voices in the mix will help advance business models that deliver impact beyond shareholder value.

Each positive step now stands a greater chance of being recognized in news and debate   ̶  and then replicated and advanced as a result.

What Motivates PR Advisers?

The central argument of Mr. Confino’s article, however, is that PR advisers are motivated and incentivized to “stick to the script of business as usual” and to persuade their clients “to keep a low Guardian Sustainable Businessprofile.” This does not map to our experience of working in the public relations industry with many of the world’s largest companies and brands.

While there is no question that there are people in the industry who are, as Mr. Confino asserts, driven primarily by fear and self-interest, no one enjoys working with them and they command little respect. We are fortunate to be part of a global division of more than 100 people at Edelman who have decided to dedicate their careers to precisely the opposite goal: to help companies confront and engage actively with the social issues they face.

Not by mistake, the division is called Business + Social Purpose.

The work we do combines research, policy expertise, corporate and marketing communications and digital-social engagement. We believe that establishing authentic social purpose at the core of a company’s identity, embedding it in the business model and realizing it with deep engagement, improves business performance.

Our work is geared to help clients crystallize and follow through on that vision. In fact, University of California-Davis and CalPERS researched 2,153 CSR Engagements over a decade to deduce an increase of 4.4 percent in stock price performance for successful CSR engagements [Dimson, E., Karakas, O.. Li, X., 2013. Active Ownership, working paper, UCD & CalPERS Sustainability & Finance Symposium].

These are powerful statistics which show that transparency and engagement matter. We believe that business can earn the license to lead. That premise underpins all of our work and is guided by research that suggests that while 50 percent of people trust business to do what is right, just 18 percent trust business leaders to tell the truth. To counter that stark fact, action is needed. For example, leaders must be more inclusive to pass the test of radical transparency.

Pushing Business to Act for Impact

Unfortunately, reading Mr. Confino’s argument threatens to be demotivating for scores of people who are striving to push clients as far as possible not just to say they are addressing issues, but to develop strategies in partnership with them to evolve how they conduct business.

It would be a big mistake for us to feel demotivated.

The risk that overly cautious or narrowly focused advisers might stifle action is a real one. And Mr. Confino is right to call it out. It should cause us to stop and pause because we must be aware of that goodpurposedanger each time we draft a strategy memo. No question, our clients’ interests will be kept front-of-mind. The alternative would be malpractice.

But the point is that many clients want to prove, as much as we do, that this is not a zero-sum game. Business purpose can be, should be and increasingly is, directly aligned with social purpose. Research supports with encouraging evidence. Our 2012 goodpurpose study revealed that 87 percent of consumers believe that business should place at least equal weight on business and society.

We would argue, admittedly with some self-interest, that companies interested in affecting change benefit from working with people who have the ability not only to understand the issues in depth, but who can drive engagement broadly, which takes far more than top-down communication. Contrary to the assertion that scale is a barrier to boldness, firms with an authentic commitment to “Purpose” and CSR, combined with independence and size, have the flexibility and depth to bring knowledge and experience to bear across geographies; offering valuable perspective on what being bold truly takes.

These are the ingredients you need if you really want to show that “the business of business is much more than just business.”

An Industry in Evolution: Impact Over Impressions

Outstanding work is no longer measured by whether people “heard” (or didn’t hear) what you had to say, but by what you changed. Many of us talk about what we can improve with our clients, not transparencyabout what we can say (or hide) for them.

This line of thought is much more mainstream among public relations professionals than people might think and while common standards to measure impact are as elusive as they are for sustainability, it is an area receiving much focus.

We need more, not fewer, people with the experience, attitude and bravery to advance that agenda – and we should feel encouraged that in Edelman’s  ‘8095’ research report, which explores what the U.S. millennial generation wants from life, “purposeful work” topped the list.

True, the aspiration to drive positive change is never easy to realize, but more often than not it is the role we are asked to play and what we get out of bed to be part of, because lasting change takes more than journalists talking alone with CEOs.

That is, of course, a vital component of an open, trust-building dynamic between business and civil society. It's one we advocate for and work hard to facilitate by arguing for increased, not decreased, transparency.

We see first-hand, however, that broader engagement is needed to tackle issues which often appear intractable. That takes people who have the motivation, remit, expertise and experience to convene stakeholders from all corners. Open dialogue designed to find answers and then make them happen in practice, with clear results, will help companies improve the bottom line and simultaneously deliver societal benefits.

Without people pushing for new ways to make that happen, progress will continue to seem like a thing for the future and not a critical priority for the present.

About the Authors:

Alex Thompson is an Executive Vice President in Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose practice. Born in London and now in New York, he has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and Africa. He has led global teams for public and private sector organizations in energy, transport, food and beverage, publishing and health; designing and running engagement programs which anchor social purpose to business strategy.

Carol Cone has responsibility for Edelman’s CSR, sustainability and citizenship offering worldwide, while she provides strategic counsel to clients including ADT, Girl Scouts USA, Southwest Airlines, Exelis, Wrigley and PNC. She has a deep commitment to innovative research conducting more than two dozen studies throughout her career. From 1980–2010 she was the founder and CEO of Cone, Inc., recognized as the nation’s leading cause branding consultancy.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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