Three-quarters of Americans give companies a grade of “C” or below for the way they are engaging consumers around key issues. Eighty-four percent of Americans believe their ideas can help companies create products and services that are a win for consumers, business and society, but only half (53 percent) feel companies are effectively encouraging them to speak up on corporate social and environmental practices and products, according to a new survey conducted by Boston-based public relations firm Cone.
The 2010 Cone Shared Responsibility Study found that a majority of consumers want to be engaged on four key responsible business pillars, including how a company conducts its business (85 percent), its products and packaging (83 percent), its support of social and environmental issues (81 percent) and its marketing and advertising (74 percent).
Consumers say they are prepared to dedicate time and money to help influence corporate social and environmental practices through surveys and research (70 percent), buying or boycotting a company’s products (44 percent) or through email, phone or employee communications (32 percent), among other activities.
Yet, when it comes to consumer interaction, most Americans say companies are not making the grade. Three-quarters assign companies a “C” grade or below when asked how well companies are engaging consumers around critical business issues.
According to Cone, “this disconnect signals a lost opportunity for companies because consumers are prepared to reward them for engagement. If a company incorporated their ideas, consumers say they would be more likely to buy its products and services (60 percent), more loyal (54 percent) and more likely to recommend the company (51 percent).”
“There’s tremendous opportunity to more actively collaborate with consumers and other key stakeholders to achieve mutually beneficial solutions,” says Jonathan Yohannan, senior vice president of Cone. “We call this collaborative approach to addressing social and environmental issues ‘Shared Responsibility’ because diverse stakeholders each have a unique value, role and stake in solving today’s complex global challenges. Companies can’t go it alone.”
Americans are holding companies accountable for addressing a range of complex, global issues that may directly or indirectly touch their businesses, from ensuring product quality and safety (92 percent) to alleviating poverty (62 percent).
The range of issues is complemented by an equally extensive menu of business approaches to solve them. Consumers indicate everything from developing new products and services (89 percent) to making charitable donations (83 percent) are effective ways for a company to help solve social and environmental issues. [See complete chart page 6.]
“Companies have a unique opportunity to address issues holistically, from the products they create to the partnerships they form to the dollars they give,” says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president of Cone. “And it’s this blend of both social initiatives and business operations – along with the sweat equity and ingenuity of diverse stakeholders – that stands to affect change. We all share responsibility for the issues at hand, and we all stand to benefit from the solutions.”
Not only do consumers want a voice in the issues, but they are overwhelmingly prepared to listen. A full 92 percent want companies to tell them what they’re doing to improve their products, services and operations. But two key barriers exist:
- Skepticism: 87 percent of consumers believe the communication is one-sided – companies share the positive information about their efforts, but withhold the negative; and,
- Confusion: 67 percent of consumers are confused by the messages companies use to talk about their social and environmental commitments.
“Open, consistent lines of communication are the only way a company can effectively collaborate with diverse stakeholders for the long-term and stay on top of issues that may improve or inhibit its business,” says Yohannan. “It doesn’t mean companies have to solve all of the issues on the table, but it does mean being transparent about their journey.”