“Why don’t we get credit for all the good things we do?” the CEO of a major global corporation asked me recently. After all, the company has innovative and impactful programs to ensure safe working conditions; training programs to help low-wage workers in its supply chain increase their earnings; numerous environmental initiatives to reduce its use of water, energy, and raw materials; diversity and volunteering programs for employees; and a foundation that makes generous contributions both locally and globally. Yet no one seems to notice.
It’s a common complaint. Companies keep trying to show the world that they are socially conscious and keep losing the battle. Anheuser-Busch and Hyundai even devoted this year’s Super Bowl ads to lauding their philanthropic efforts with decidedly mixed responses. Critics questioned Hyundai’s decision to spend $5 million to advertise the $15 million donated to its Hope on Wheels program in 2017 (although in fairness, it has donated $130 million over its 20-year history). And Pepsi caused an outrage a few months earlier when its attempt to appear politically aware in an ad with Kendall Jenner seemed to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement. Trying too hard can backfire.
A major reason companies don’t get credit for their good works is they employ a one-size-fits-all strategy to communicating their efforts, while what’s needed are focused messages that matter to each of their four different audiences:
- corporate watchdogs such as social media activists, NGOs, and government agencies
- employees who want to be proud of their workplace
- investors who ultimately determine the company’s value and fate
- customers — along with the general public — who provide its revenue and define its brand identity
Many companies can and do create immense positive social impact. Nearly every major company today operates a broad set of social and environmental activities that parallel its commercial value chain. Two decades ago, these activities may have been optional, but today they are unavoidable. Increasingly, opportunities to create shared value that benefit both the company and society are becoming an essential part of corporate strategy. Yet companies keep searching for the right way to communicate all this.
So far the most popular medium has been glossy sustainability reports. Eighty-five percent of the S&P 500 companies publish such reports, which often are longer than their annual financial reports. Highly sophisticated corporate communications departments send these reports out to media, NGOs, government agencies, universities, and anyone else they can think of in the social sector — but I don’t know anyone other than a few corporate watchdogs who actually reads them.
What companies need to do instead is to tailor their communications about their social initiatives for each of the four audiences I listed above. Let’s consider what it takes to get some love from each of them.