We seldom realise how far we have come until we stop, breathe and look back. Ever tried learning to play a musical instrument, run a big race, or even watched a child grow? The daily changes are imperceptible, despite any volume of effort expended, until one day something just clicks, a goal is reached, or we make the time to review from a distance.
A trip back a mere half century to the 1960’s takes you to a world before ‘CSR’, of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring hitting the bookshelves and whole theatre of corporate based exploitation, greed and naivety.
“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”
This may be a quote from a fictional character, but Mad Men’s Don Draper knows his communications eggs. Back then communications meant control. For too long the corporate world was well fertilised by the emergence of abundant oil that gave almost omnipotent control over its products and operations through dictatorial communications departments and agencies.
This world back before wide-spread silicon chips was much, much smaller, and that is the way that the emerging globalising commercial markets liked it. CSR in this world is that of the thorn in Milton Friedman’s side; philanthropy, social offsetting, superficiality and egos. Globalisation in particular meant more opportunities and bigger audiences to market to. Companies didn’t need to listen.
Like pioneers in a gold rush, it was all about making profit as quick as possible before whatever commodity seam ran out. And why not? Global resources where plentiful, cigarettes were cool, our climate was serenely beautiful, man (as women weren’t allowed credit in those days) was heading to the moon, and all the people all around the world were blissfully happy, or the rose-tinted corporate marketing campaigns wanted us to believe so anyway. Maybe we should call this period peak (with tongue only partly in cheek) Supershareholders?
Fifty years later, and oil is losing its crown…
I am comfortable to be in the minority with this opinion, but yes ‘CSR’ absolutely works, better than ever, albeit in all the purest sense including various maturing flavours of frameworks and definitions. For many CSR became a wrongfully derogatory shorthand for social offsetting or ego massaging philanthropy disconnected from any real business. For me CSR is a wonderful shorthand (especially on Twitter) for the widest responsible business spectrum. Ask Unilever about their doubled growth for their ethical brands over the rest of their portfolio, ask GE about Ecomagination’s $200 billion in revenue or UK social enterprises out performing traditional SMEs in almost every way. Let’s be honest here. 99.9% of traditional businesses exist to make a profit first, regardless of grandiose sustainability statements about putting the planet first. What balance of profit, social value and fairness is another matter entirely.
Tom Liacas’ suggestion of Superstakeholders are demanding, and occasionally winning, more than the historical incremental change because the intersection of business and society has been democratised, whilst also thrown into an environmental pressure cooker. I see Superstakeholders as focused attackers of the biggest opportunities and risks. The areas where gradual improvement tips beyond being unacceptable to a critical mass.
Business and society has to change, and more rapidly than throughout the industrial revolution. The significant indicators I see on my radar include voluntary ‘CSR’ gradually becoming mandatory, CSR Managers becoming Chief Sustainability Officers, integrated reporting, corporations are becoming BCorps, broadcasting becoming conversations, marketing becoming listening, data leapfrogging intuition and science slowly educating politics.
At the same time we are learning how to implement updated forms of commerce that cannot ignore natural capital and the true cost of exploiting those resources once considered never-ending.
It is suggested, possibly by Don Draper of today types, that two billion people will have smartphones by 2016. Putting the impact of sourcing materials and the labour conditions of workers aside, each of these wondrously over-powered for our daily needs devices now allows people with similar values to connect and be heard. Any person with a mobile phone, smart or otherwise, a tablet or a camera equipped drone, has near instant access to a constantly notification hungry army of tribal connected keyword communities.
At the top of this week’s news is that Volkswagen were exposed by a regulator for disguising pollutions levels in some of its cars. By lunchtime VW shares had lost nearly 20% of their value. I don’t think that level of immediacy had many Mad Men trembling about their clients at night.
What those in corporations tend to underestimate is that passionate activists and campaigners trump salaried professionals in the longer term, especially increasingly well informed and supported ones. Employees move jobs. Campaigners can be a little more stubborn, tenacious and will gladly hunker down for the good fight. Asia Pulp and Paper is a great example of an organisation that clung to a blatantly defiant broadcast defence mechanism before appearing to change tack dramatically in the face of robust, coordinated, intelligent and sustained collaborative Superstakeholder pressure. Time will tell on the actually impact of the professed turnaround, but many eyes are watching.
Patagonia has yet again upped its own game by creating what could be perceived as their own internal Superstakeholder. CEO Rose Marcario recently explained the announcement of a new position for Lisa Pike Sheehy as Vice President of Environmental Activism,
“Her appointment as VP is an important recognition that Patagonia’s future as a business—and the future of us all—is tied intimately to that of the biotic community and how we deal with climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem protection.”
Superstakeholders have also realised that they had to step up, beyond self-limiting beliefs, their game and fight fire with fire, with tools and processes that the private sector exploit so proficiently, and some of their own such as platforms like a favourite of mine called Wikirate. Greenpeace is regularly and rightly praised for its high-profile media based campaigns that have overtly used Mad Men-like techniques to ‘change the conversation’ and vehicle of its communications to reach wider audiences and with far more impact.
You could also check out this new initiative from the United Nations Environment Programme. Bet you didn’t expect to be playing Angry Birds next did you? Not quite the preaching plea to save the planet of days gone by. Communication territories are blurring.
The only long-term strategy to survive in a democratised marketplace where Superstakeholders are empowered is through transparency and collaboration. Think Superengagement building relationships more deeply, with wider audiences and for longer to enhance trust. Superengagement further reduces risk and highlights opportunity. It takes intelligent investment in time and finances but understanding (and I mean way beyond any annual focus group meeting) all your stakeholders to the degree many research only their customers / potential customers generates results.
Elevated levels of openness rubs against a persisting culture of intellectual protectionism and insecurity, (usually perpetuated by grey haired men in board rooms) that all but a handful of leading business are scrambling to understand and escape.
In the communications space we have seen an explosion in the sharing of data and stories, with the successes of facilitators such as 3BL Media’s continuing global growth through acquisition underlining the trend, especially in the non-financial reporting space. Still a young company themselves and now a multi-million dollar operation, 3BL Media acts as an easy access gateway to crowds of specialised, and more importantly, mainstream audiences for companies to spread their messaging to stimulate stakeholder responses.
Another area business need to better understand is that of investor Superstakeholders (possibly Ultimatestakeholders) as they creep towards sustainability leadership. Improvements in how financiers and accountants measure, report and compare risk in capital terms will drastically effect access to finance in coming years. The development of integrated reporting and the six capitals framework is a fascinating journey to be part of.
Businesses have lost control of brands and an indiscretion, intentional or not, can wipe out a global company in hours. The only answer is to embrace and understand the wider externalities, which yes included extra cost, be transparent, accessible and authentic. There are few hiding places left.
The dinosaur business cultures based on the fossil fuelled era of the Mad Men are fading and the next future appears to be framed by the Superstakeholder friendly Teslas, Unilevers, Patagonias, and Greenpeaces of tomorrow.
What do you think about the future for #Superstakeholders?