Above (left to right): Inge Wallage, Anthony Gooch, Celine Schillinger, Elsa Niewmtzow and Phil Riggins

Organisations are increasingly expected to take a stance and promote their values outside of the immediate operating environment. Should an organisation actively become involved in social and political issues, and how should communicators enable this dialogue?

The discussion at the EACD Forum 2018 examined research from Phil Riggins of the Brand & Reputation Collective and leading examples of purpose-driven organisations. Moderated by EACD managing director Inge Wallage, a diverse panel of leading communicators discussed shared responsibility and the impact of corporate activism in a rapidly changing world: they were Elisa Niemtzow (Managing Director at Business for Social Responsibility), Celine Schillinger (Founder and CEO, We Need Social) and Anthony Gooch (Director of Communications, Public Affairs and Engagement, OECD).

Just how new is “corporate activism”? According to the evening’s opening keynote by Anthony Gooch, not that new. Anthony quoted a statement by Johnson & Johnson published in 1943 that would be the envy of many progressive executive boards today.

So why is now the era of corporate purpose? Anthony cited a “fundamental realignment” in the balance of power between corporations and customers, resulting from the 2008 economic crisis. Brands no longer dictate the terms, NGOs are no longer the sole consciences, and there is a “clear demand” from stakeholders who want to know where companies stand on big questions shaping our society. Anthony believes that “As a business leader, it is no longer possible to view your economic activity in a social vacuum.” Although Anthony cited risks inherent in CEOs taking a stand on divisive issues (e.g. abortion in the US), he also made clear the risks of inaction: “if you decide not to take a stand on an issue, you run the risk of your position being decided for you in the public eye, becoming complicit in actions that are deemed to be socially and societally unacceptable.”

Knowing when to take a position was also touched on by Phil Riggins in his short presentation of the results of his survey. He recommended three tips to help in the decision-making process: know yourself and know your audience - spend a lot of time listening to yourselves and then go out and understand what matters to the people that you're trying to bring along with you; be consistent – Phil used the example of Nike’s ad with Colin Kaepernick: a rise in sales in the wake of a worthy ad with a powerful socially conscious message is all we all and good, but what happens in sweatshops along the supply chain? Finally, Phil recommends building a culture of purpose to read his views in depth, move over to his article in the latest issue of Communication Director.

Corporate culture was also at the heart of Elisa Niemtzow’s comments: she counselled the audience to set their company leadership and culture as their North Star in terms of setting the ambition and direction for consistent engagement on social issues. Among other strategies, she recommended leveraging collaborations to drive systemic change in one’s industry, and recognising that employees are core constituency in decisions about when and how to take a stand – more so than external interests are.

Deciding to take a stand is all well and good, but how does the individual communications professional take the first step to effect that change? Celine Schillinger drew on her experience in heading stakeholder engagement initiatives (for example, at Sanofi Pasteur where she was head of quality innovation and engagement) to outline her vision of how communicators themselves can effect change within their organisation, a vital first step in any corporate activism model.

In the discussion that followed, the audience took their turns to dep dive into the statements of each speaker, with some juicy comments, personal reflections, and challenges to the status quo, including one comment that the very idea of “corporate activism”, of companies taking on socially leading roles in the absence of strong governmental leadership, gives too much power to corporates – proving that, although the concept may not be entirely new, as Anthony showed in his keynote, in today’s age of radical uncertainty, corporate activism is more urgent and hotly debated than ever.

See more tweets about the EACD Forum here.

Watch our interview with keynote speaker Anthony Gooch Gálvez here.

Watch our interview with panel speaker Céline Schillinger here.