MIAMI—Consumer expectations of corporate responsibility have moved beyond “do no harm” to “do more good,” according to a panel at the Global Public Relations Summit organized by Cone Communications and moderated by the firm’s executive vice president Craig Bida.
Cone’s research on the topic shows that only 36 percent of consumers believe that organizations exist solely to make money, suggesting a tremendous potential for engagement when companies do engage in corporate responsibility—and potential risk for companies perceived as less than responsible. Indeed, Cone’s survey results suggest that globally, only 22 percent believe companies are actually having an impact on issues.
And the challenge becomes even more complex because consumers expect companies to focus on both global and local issues. The various panelists are all addressing the balance required by those conflicting demands.
“As a global company, FedEx realizes that it has a responsibility to all our team members and customers around the world, but we also at the same time realize we have to think globally and act locally,” says Cindy Conner is Director of Citizenship and Reputation Management for FedEx Corporation. “There are things we are uniquely qualified to do well because of our global reach but we also have to look at local opportunities and local responsibility.
“You need an approach that combines local sensitivity with a global approach that is focused on the things you are uniquely good at.”
Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has long been a leader in corporate responsibility and has been thinking about this issues for decades.
“I think expectations for Patagonia have gotten higher as we have consistently made an argument over the last 30 years for increased social responsibility,” said Vincent Stanley, the company’s chief storyteller. “I don’t think there is much local variance. What I see is the same kinds of tensions around these issues all around the world. There has been a disappearance of any kind of belief that governments and corporations will behave well, coupled with a yearning for better behavior.”
There is no questions that expectations are higher now than they have ever been in the past.
According to Aaron Sherinian, vice president of communications and public relations for the United Nations Foundation: “We are well past ‘do no harm.’ The expectation now is ‘do more good.’ It is now about being a fund raiser, and a friend raiser, and a hell raiser. People are looking for companies to take a stand on an issue.”
That’s a challenge, because “we are all doing a lot of harm,” said Stanley. “We all use fossil fuels. We use industrial systems that have been in place. Some companies are doing great things but are afraid of talking about because they fear their will make themselves target. What companies have to do is tell a story around what they are doing that is actually helpful to people. We need to show customers a picture of how life will be better if a situation is changed and provide the information customers need to make an informed decision.”
At the same time, it is important not to “greenwash,” not to exaggerate, and not to over-promise. “You have to talk about all the good things you do, but you also have to talk about the bad things,” Stanley says. “Otherwise people don’t believe they are getting the whole story.”
Sherinian’s advice: “Ask your customers what they think you do best, where they think you can make a difference.” Walgreens, for example, realized that it was a connection between people and the healthcare system, and that was an area where the company could make the biggest difference.”