Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life. Businesses are adapting to a new world, working flexibly, serving customers differently, looking for new markets, cutting costs and seeking support wherever they can.
But on top of this is a more existential crisis: COVID is the planet saying enough is enough. Humanity has been threatened in a way that hasn’t happened for a long time, and the psychological impact is deep. It has brought a new level of scrutiny to everything we do as individuals and as businesses.
The deficiencies of current institutions and structures are now clear. Resources are scarce, supply chains are precarious and complex — and easily disrupted — and we face unprecedented environmental challenges. The complexities of the world exceed our ability to maintain balance and order and ensure safety and security for all.
Yesterday’s models won’t work. We are beyond sponsorships, corporate giving and social responsibility. While all well-meaning, they too easily reduce to mere lip service or what is now known as green-washing, purpose-washing or social-washing.
The pandemic called upon organizations to re-evaluate their role in society and deliver benefits for all. How do organizations measure up against this new idealism? How do they even start to approach what they need to do? How do they stay ahead of stakeholder expectations and stay relevant? As communication professionals, how do we help them navigate this new world?
An Ecosystem Built on the Principles of Social Capital
Businesses and their leaders’ actions have become ever-more more important, as stakeholders and society are looking to them to lead the way out of pandemic-related challenges. Society expects more and is applying an enhanced level of scrutiny.
As has always been the case, it’s about building an environment of deep understanding, trust and integrity with all stakeholders so organizations can conduct their business with absolute confidence. It’s about building social capital or social license to operate. This is the critically important role for all communication professionals today.
Put simply, social capital is the stock of goodwill that supports or impedes the business’ strategy. It helps businesses earn public trust, protect reputation and preserve their license to operate. It is not an image. It’s about understanding the social context in which you operate and the expectations of your stakeholders. It’s about articulating your purpose, sharing your values and explaining your strategy.
What is new is the expectation that, now more than ever, businesses and organizations will be part of the solution. People do not see governments and public policy as providing all the answers. Organizations have a role to play in creating a world where business, people and the planet can all exist and thrive in natural balance. After all, we are in this together.
Focus on Purpose
Enabled by a digitally hyper-connected world, people today want to know more about the businesses they buy from and are demanding more in terms of transparency, integrity and responsibility to the communities and environments in which they operate. When companies don’t meet their standards, consumers are more willing to cut them off permanently.
What businesses and organizations do today matters tomorrow. It sets them apart. It puts them on the right side of history. It sets them up for success and earns them the right to win.
Businesses will thrive when they do their work in a way that benefits the world and its people. This goes far beyond environmental sustainability and climate change. It’s also about social injustices, social infrastructure, equality, inclusion, diversity and accessibility. It’s how we treat our world and how we treat each other.
To thrive after the pandemic, organizations will need to embed a clear sense of purpose throughout all they do. They must make environmental, social and community commitments part of the business and engage internally and externally with authentic communications about the actions being taken to make a difference. The green-washers, social-washers and purpose-washers won’t be here tomorrow.
The Smart Money Is on Purpose
Smart companies know that this commitment to deliver on a clear, humanity-inspired purpose is not just a driver for corporate reputation. It’s a driver for growth.
Customers and consumers both expect and demand to know how products are produced; what actions and decisions are made through supply chains; how workers are treated; how materials are sourced; and the carbon footprint of a product and its journey.
Companies want their own suppliers to meet standards to protect the integrity of their own claims; employees want to work for companies that are aligned to their values; and investors are increasingly looking to direct money into investments that are reducing negative impacts on the environment and on society.
Companies have seen employees walk out over climate issues, and today around two-thirds of millennials take a company’s social and environmental commitments into account when deciding where to work.
Environmental and social programs can reduce costs, for example, by improving energy or water efficiency or more efficient operations due to restrictions on travel. The list goes on.
Where to From Here? Creating a Social Capital Ecosystem for Our Times
As some of us slowly venture from our homes again, businesses can take exceptional steps to be part of the solution in a post-COVID world.
- It all starts with a deep understanding of business, social and cultural context. Awakened companies will be listening and paying close attention to their stakeholders.
- Develop a clear humanity-inspired purpose statement and make it your true north. Identify what you need to do every day as a business to live that purpose, and involve everyone in the process.
- Smart leaders will walk the talk, live the purpose, create clarity around the strategy, inspire and connect to what people do.
- Authentic engagement internally and externally will create an exchange of trust and value and long lasting connection.
This is a communications ecosystem built on the principles of social capital, and it’s an antidote to a COVID world. Communication professionals who can help organizations embed this approach will help them lead today and build resilience for the long term.
Kylie Taylor is the group managing director of the independent public affairs and strategic communications consultancy, Baldwin Boyle Group. She has 30 years of experience working with boards, chief executives and senior leadership teams in Australia, New Zealand and across Asia. She helps clients build and maintain positive and supportive relationships with their key stakeholders through critical times of change, uncertainty and disruption, and also through times of growth, expansion and opportunity. She has helped clients articulate their purpose, values and future-focused narrative, share their ESG commitments and explain strategy. Her experience extends across banking and finance, government, energy, aviation, healthcare, building and construction, food and agriculture and education.