Business Unusual Conversations

By Neil Davy

Communications in a new era of responsible business

Protecting balance sheets, supply chains, reputations, jobs and people. It’s what we’ve all been thinking about, talking about, preoccupied with. Survival. When we emerge from this pandemic the relationships and interdependencies between businesses, investors, governments and society – between all of us – will have changed inexorably. And the role of communication in establishing and sustaining those relationships and interactions will have changed too.

Corporate philanthropy, CSR, community programmes and stepping-up in times of crisis are important and commendable, but simply talking about ‘doing good’ won’t be good enough. Those who prosper beyond the crisis will be businesses who can talk credibly about how they contribute to society and the wider world in a more meaningful and lasting way.

It’s become painfully clear over recent weeks that those businesses for whom profit is an outcome of (not the reason for) what they do, who enhance performance by meaningfully connecting people with the business, and operate sustainably and responsibly have been best placed to speak with that credibility and authority about how they are responding to COVID-19. And those who talk about it, but in reality don’t operate in that way, are being horribly exposed. The reputational impact could be long-lasting.

Yet despite this, coming out of the pandemic people will still work for and buy from businesses who use non-recyclable materials, operate complex tax avoidance schemes and pump millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. So, are people who own, lead, work for, supply or buy from these businesses inherently uncaring or amoral? Or do these same people want to be responsible and sustainable, but haven’t been shown a credible path? I believe it’s the latter.

What’s holding us back?

Shareholder primacy, matrix management systems, exclusively financial incentives, poor communication, self-interest and no agreed standard of what ‘responsible business’ looks like are just a few of the issues that collectively create a misalignment between corporate communications and an organisations’ purpose, it’s strategy, capabilities, structure and processes. They make talking about – and actually being purpose-led, responsible and sustainable – complex and difficult.

So, what do we do?

The immediate priority is to survive the crisis and get businesses operational and trading. But it doesn’t disguise the fact we need to reorientate business for long-term, sustainable success. The communications profession has an essential role to play in achieving that.

As we try to make sense of today, we are also presented with an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider business-as-usual, and ask ourselves:

What kind of organisation do we want to be?

When were we at our best during the crisis?

What’s stopping us from being at our best all the time?

Communications professionals can help define and align people on what being a purposeful organisation actually means for their particular business, support leaders who genuinely want to work sustainably and responsibly with authentic communication about how they are trying to do the right thing, and demonstrate with practical examples how profit is an outcome of their activities properly managed rather than being the reason for them.

From provocation to purposeful business in practice

Achieving this often involves creating space upfront for ‘business unusual’ conversations. Becoming sustainable and responsible starts with a brutally honest conversation about purpose, which (like ‘purpose-led’ or ‘purposeful’) is a poorly defined, overused and widely misunderstood term, a problem which the communications and creative industries have unwittingly helped propagate and amplify.

Whether a business is set up to maximise profit for its owners, to tackle an environmental cause or address a social injustice, all businesses have a purpose. If the purpose of a business is solely or primarily to make money, we should be upfront and explicit about the fact; there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But it does have consequences for the management of the relationships that create the value that allows a business to prosper, and the communications associated with it.

‘Purposeful businesses’ go beyond a beautifully crafted purpose statement. They’re clear why they exist beyond the need to make a financial surplus, have a point of view on something they’re passionate about that connects people to the business, respect the dignity of people, provide goods that are truly ‘good’ and services that ‘serve’ to people with unmet or poorly met needs, and contribute to a common good others can share in.

The challenge

Becoming more purposeful and sustainable is easy to talk about, but it’s not simple or straight forward in practice. It requires careful stakeholder communication and engagement, an acknowledgement that every person and business is unique and at a different stage on the journey, and recognition that many lessons and examples – both good and bad – already exist within organisations. These are stories that can be helpfully shared in a spirit of continuous improvement.

Traditional corporate communications and established measurement metrics are under scrutiny as narratives around ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) performance and the KPIs that accompany them rapidly grow in importance for investors and other stakeholders. Communication in a new era of responsible business requires experimentation and learning at a pace that the business can absorb without losing determination and momentum. Communication, like change itself, is an iterative process, not a checklist.

Neil Davy is the former Global CEO of Corporate Citizenship, a management consultancy specializing in sustainability, part of Chime Communications.

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