In an era characterized by rapid technological advancements, heightened social awareness and a growing emphasis on sustainable growth — or a VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — the role of businesses in shaping and responding to societal context has never been more pivotal. The fourth annual Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs 2023 Survey serves as a crucial compass, shedding light on the intricate interplay between companies, their communication strategies and the societies they operate within.
By capturing the views and insights of 109 senior corporate affairs communication professionals in the survey earlier this year, we can gain a clearer understanding of how companies are navigating the delicate balance between profitability, ethics and social impact.
Purposeful Leadership Continues to Redefine the Role of Business Communications
The 2023 survey results vividly underscored the belief that societal expectations of purposeful leadership will continue to rise in the next three years. This is reflected by over 90% of professionals claiming that their organizations have an established corporate purpose in place, an increase of nearly 10% over the last two years.
Purpose is becoming a central component of business strategy with almost two-thirds of respondents strongly believing that it plays an important role in major business decisions. Generally, companies believe their corporate purpose is effectively articulated, with 72% of professionals strongly believing so. However, there is less — albeit increasing — confidence in the ability to fully leverage their purpose across all corporate communications channels, highlighting a need for further integration of purpose across all aspects of the business.
There’s also room for improvement for companies that engage internal stakeholders, with only 46% of respondents believing their employees understand how they help deliver on their company’s purpose. And we know that employees’ ability to talk fluently to the corporate purpose can steer the strategic direction of the business.
This research underscores how purposeful leadership is — not just an idealistic aspiration, but a strategic imperative, showcasing its power to catalyze both business growth and meaningful societal change through effective business integration and communication.
Navigating Polarized Expectations on Social and Environmental Paradigm Shifts
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, geopolitical risk and uncertainty have become the number one perceived risk for businesses, overtaking ESG. Within the broader category of geopolitical risk and uncertainty, political populism and polarization continue to concern leaders and the perception of risks in these areas has grown over the last four years. Currently, 54% see this as a high risk to business in general and 42% see it affecting their own company — a doubling of concern since 2020.
Where leaders had previously expressed a growing belief that companies should be more proactive in their advocacy to address and help mitigate these risks, enthusiasm has somewhat waned. However, since both remain at higher levels than in 2021, perhaps this is more of a pause than a retrenchment. Nevertheless, 29% of corporate affairs professionals have a strong case for corporate advocacy, but only 18% of organizations are actively involved in it.
“This is very tricky for business currently. There was a big push for companies to be the champion of social issues when the government in the U.S. was not trusted or in a position to lead social discussions and engagement. Now, companies are starting to see blowback by accusations of being ‘woke.’ They very carefully need to identify and act on the issues they are in a credible position to weigh in on, but now that ESG has been politicized, it is very risky.” — Survey respondent from the U.S.
One major constraint on appetite for and engagement in advocacy is the potential charge of greenwashing that can result. In 2022, 53% of respondents were concerned about accusations of greenwashing and this year that number has jumped to 66%. This increase is unsurprising given the greater scrutiny from regulators in key jurisdictions and some high-profile rulings against companies, including H&M, HSBC, Shell and others.
Where companies have been accused of greenwashing, these accusations have resulted in an increased focus on social and environmental performance. In some cases, it has even driven a retreat from direct involvement and a move to intermediating future communications on such work.
The conundrum in all of this is that while businesses say it is important to have a voice on important issues, follow through is low. The issue of metrics and proof points in judging effectiveness has a role to play and will continue to do so as scrutiny increases.
The Need for the Corporate Affairs Function to Understand Evolving Stakeholder Expectations
Since the start of this study in 2020, pressures on organizations from geopolitical risk and uncertainty, ESG, macroeconomic headwinds, and populism and polarization have never been greater. At no time has the corporate affairs function been more important in helping to think through and act on strategies. The goal of business is to not just mitigate these risks and achieve business goals but also satisfy the array of stakeholders who interact with the company.
Corporate affairs has evolved to try and capture the social context in which businesses operate and have doubled in prominence since 2021. Similarly, mapping, prioritizing and engaging with stakeholders and their issues has also seen a steep increase over the last three years with increased mentions of responding to activist shareholders. This stakeholder focus seems to come at the expense of internal communications, which has fallen dramatically in the ranking. This trend is concerning because strong internal communications around the corporate purpose and how this drives strategy and commitment to broader society are crucial.
These results point to an increasing imperative for the corporate affairs function to understand stakeholder expectations so that businesses are better equipped to communicate effectively with them and ultimately build trust.
Charting a Purpose-Driven Course
In a complex and ambiguous world, the 2023 Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs Survey illustrates the intricate relationship between businesses, their communication strategies and the societies they operate within. Purposeful leadership has emerged as a transformative force, shaping business strategies and decisions, yet the challenge remains in effectively conveying this purpose both internally and externally. Meanwhile, the shifting landscape of societal and environmental expectations presents a delicate balancing act, with companies grappling to address polarized viewpoints while avoiding accusations of ‘wokeness’ and greenwashing. As businesses navigate this complex terrain, the research provides a compass to steer toward purposeful growth and authentic societal impact in a rapidly evolving world.
About the Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs 2023 Survey
This is the fourth annual Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs 2023 Survey which provides the latest overview of opinions, trends and challenges through the lens of Corporate Affairs practitioners. This report captures the views and insights of 109 senior professionals who were surveyed in March 2023 on issues and themes of relevance to the function. The University of Oxford and GlobeScan formalized a partnership in 2019 to deliver enhanced insight into the roles, responsibilities, challenges, opportunities and themes facing leading global corporate affairs professionals around the world. The primary purpose of the partnership is to generate valuable research findings for organizations, senior executives and Corporate Affairs leaders through a regular pulse of novel, timely and data-driven insights about the evolution of the corporate affairs agenda.
For further information, contact Anneke Greyling,
Director, Africa at Anneke.Greyling@GlobeScan.com
Anneke Greyling heads the Africa region of insights and advisory consultancy GlobeScan. She works with leadership organizations to help them better understand and respond to shifting stakeholder expectations, build trust with key constituencies, and exert greater influence in shaping the future.
Anneke has more than two decades of experience in providing evidence-based counsel in the areas of reputation, purpose, and stakeholder engagement. She is passionate about building trusted and recognized leadership for GlobeScan’s clients. With a background in politics and government and as an expert in political dynamics she is well placed to offer advice on the impact of societal trends on business.