“We all need to become corporate activists”. With this provocative statement, Simon Henzell-Thomas, Global Head of Public Affairs of IKEA Group, kicked off a lively debate on how to communicate on corporate citizenship.

Simon himself was the first to acknowledge that communicating corporate citizenship and corporate activism in sustainability and social matters is high-risk stuff. It very often means walking a thin line between opportunistic promotion and greenwash and truly powerful communication about the good-doing of a company. He pictured his presentation with many examples that illustrated how easily it can go wrong in the efforts to promote a sustainable profile, including a former IKEA advertising film which initial goal was to highlight democratic design, but instead was perceived to stimulate people’s throw-it-away mentality.

Many steps were taken since then to drive trust in IKEA, as according to Simon corporate citizenship is a key driver in this. He introduced the triangle of three basic elements that need to work in sync in corporate citizenship communications – the need for a clear vision & strategy, actual performance and communication & engagement. “You actually need to be doing something that is rooted in the company and its business”, he stated.

However, he also pointed out, even then you will find many dilemmas along on the way of communicating the good of the company. His notion that we are all influencers and that we are guarding reputations in decline and corporate messages that are not trusted - as is clearly shown by recent measurements by Pulse Trend and Edelman’s Trust Barometer – is to be seen in this light. How do we as corporate communicators really make an impact? A helpful two-scale-model was introduced to assess corporate citizenship activism - with tone of voice on the horizontal axis and the level of actions taken on the vertical axis. Clearly amongst the full activists are the companies involved in real actions and activities, with a bold and edgy tone of voice. Very often the sustainability agenda of these companies is personified by the activist-CEO. In any case you don’t want to be in the corner of hollow actions where bold messages on social policies are not based on real actions.

To conclude the meeting, the results of the recent survey of the Working Group Corporate Citizenship were presented. Participants are looking for best practices and peer to peer discussions. In that sense, this first meeting was spot-on.