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Responsible businesses need to shout louder about their societal value

Businesses must use all channels to shout about their good deeds.

Businesses must use all channels to shout about their good deeds. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/ SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters/Corbis

Business leaders have a larger role to play in highlighting positive contributions of their companies. This requires a deeper connect with employees to disseminate core sustainability values – transparency, openness and commitment.

Editor – Marketspace/editor@thinktosustain.com


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This article titled “Responsible businesses need to shout louder about their societal value” was written by Stephen Howard, for the guardian.com on Monday 15th December 2014 15.10 UTC

Almost half of the British public do not think business makes a positive contribution to society. For those of us in sustainability, with day-to-day exposure to the positive actions of businesses, this might seem shocking. But the reality is there is a lack of belief in business as a force for positive change.

This is partly down to high profile examples of business failing to live up to the standards expected by society – be this over tax, bonuses or pay. Chief executives face a greater level of scrutiny than ever and, as a result, wrongdoings are rapidly shared and amplified. Doing one thing and saying another is not only unacceptable in today’s 24 hour digital age, it is impossible.

We also know that bad news sells. Despite business scandals being the exception rather than the rule, there is continuing media and public appetite for these stories, with estimates suggesting the ratio of positive to negative news stories about business is 1:17.

I believe that more effective communication from chief executives about their business and its wider societal value will not only help drive changing perceptions of business, but also encourage other leaders to do more.

Across the companies I work with at Business in the Community, there are some inspirational examples of business making a difference to society – be this through helping disadvantaged people into work, inspiring young people into careers, supporting entrepreneurs to grow their businesses or creating products that drive a sustainable future.

I spend much of my time in corporate boardrooms talking to passionate chief executives about these businesses, yet I rarely hear those same chief executives share these stories on public platforms or in mainstream media interviews, or articulate how this activity contributes to overall business value in their annual and quarterly reports.

Despite businesses doing so much to tackle some of our big issues, much of this activity is never communicated to customers and employees, let alone the wider public. So it’s no surprise that the visibility of responsible business remains low.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many leaders are reluctant to put their head above the parapet and engage in transparent conversations about their company’s value for fear of public backlash. Other chief executives with a genuine desire to be more open are encouraged not to do so by internal stakeholders to prevent perceived or genuine business risk.

In my former life as a corporate chief executive I’ve been in those meetings with legal, regulatory and communications teams, so I understand how challenging it can be as a leader when the army of advisors around you are urging caution. But if leaders are ever going to demonstrate that their ethics are worth more than the words in the values statements, we need to see more of them talking about the positive impact of their business.

There are a number of ways chief executives can help lift the visibility of responsible business. Firstly they can place transparency at the heart of how they communicate through their business and externally. Leaders need to continually remind wider stakeholders that the business has a broader responsibility than short term gains.

As the economist John Kay said: “Profit is no more the purpose of business than breathing is the purpose of life”. Profit is the result of business activity, the providing of goods and services that customers need and want, not the purpose. Chief executives have a real opportunity to make sure this message gets out to the wider world.

While the social media age presents its challenges, it also provides new opportunities to use digital tools and channels to connect with stakeholders. Chief executives need to take every opportunity to open up their organisations and let the public see what’s inside, and this won’t always be through traditional media channels.

I would like to see leaders use a range of channels to talk about the challenges they face, the impact of their business and the decisions they make, as frankly and passionately as I hear them talking privately.

Engaging investors is key to increasing visibility. When I ran large companies, it was challenging to get sustainability and social value on the agenda with investors. Now I get a real sense that the tide is turning. A recent PwC survey suggests that four in five investors say they consider sustainability issues in their investment strategies.

We’re also seeing more emerging campaigns such as the CBI’s Great Business Debate and Blueprint for Better Business, which give business a platform to talk about what it does. It’s this type of thinking which is behind Responsible Business Week, launched a few years ago to give businesses an annual collaborative opportunity to share. It’s also why we are currently asking business of all sizes to submit stories of their impact to the Responsible Business Awards. All of this gives much needed public profile to responsible business practice, in turn encouraging more business leaders to contribute their voices.

Of course, while informing the public is key, it’s equally as important that business leaders consider how they communicate with their staff. Employees can be both the harshest critics and the greatest cheerleaders for business. A business is only as responsible as the behaviour of its employees so chief executives must ensure that they are rewarding the right behaviours and giving staff at all levels reason to feel genuinely proud of the company they work for.

Leaders should be doing everything in their power to develop engaged staff who believe in their business and live those values because ultimately it is these employees who will be the most powerful advocates for your business – to families, friends and wider society.

Stephen Howard is chief executive of Business in the Community

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