Is reputation the new sustainability?

statementLately I have been wondering if reputation is going the way of sustainability. Years ago, sustainability and corporate social responsibility was on everyone's agendas in corporate American and around the world. It was hard to distinguish what was the difference between corporate social responsibility, corporate responsibility, community development, philantrophy, charitable giving,  sustainability and all the other terms that were increasingly undefined, bundled together and fuzzy around the edges. Today, nearly all companies have CSR reports and it is expected of leading companies. CEOs too agree that CSR is critical to their business. A recent Accenture/UN Global Compact study found that 93% of global CEOs believe that sustainability issues will be critical to the future success of their business and 72% cite “brand, trust and reputation” as one of the top three factors driving them to take action on sustainability issues. Revenue growth and cost reduction are second at 44%. Everywhere you turn, sustainability is on the agenda. All in all, that's a good thing. However, I still think that the terms have been interchangeable and are used indiscriminately except by those really in the know. In a new book I just heard about, The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From The Socialstructed World by Marina Gorbis, she argues that in the future we may start to see Reputation Statement Accounts just like we get from the bank. But these monthly statements will not inform you of your monetary transactions, but will tell you "how much you’ve earned by contributing to sites such as Wikipedia or Flickr, how many points you’ve earned by providing rankings or ratings on various community sites, or how much social currency you’ve spent by asking someone for advice." We already have these kinds of ratings through Kred and Klout although somewhat different.

Her book also refers to the Whuffie Bank which is a nonprofit built on a new reputation currency that can be redeemed for real and virtual products and services. "The Whuffie Bank issues whuffies based on a reputation algorithm that blends information from different social networks and provides an accurate reflection of people's web reputations. And as the Internet and social networks become a large part of people’s lives, your web influence will become an increasingly accurate reflection of you.” That sure is the truth looking us in the eye.

I am afraid to say that everyone is a reputation expert today. Reputation means so many things that it is getting harder and harder to pin down. And I hope it does not become the new sustainability which has meaning depending on who you are talking to.

On to the future.

If Consumers Care, Investors Follow

CEOs get the importance of corporate responsibility. At the recent Board of Boards CEO Conference in New York where heavyweight CEOs from around the world meet annually, the discussion on doing well by doing good was front and center. In an article on that meeting in Barron's, the attending author said,

"How the times have changed. Whether investors like it or not, this era’s consumers do care deeply that the products they purchase are both cheap and do no harm to the environment, or, better yet, positively contribute to the state of the world. A full 59% of the queried CEOs felt consumers were “demanding greater levels of transparency regarding their companies’ community engagement initiatives;” 69% claimed such efforts on their part were “rewarded by consumers.”

Because consumers care, investors should care. Fact is, when a company’s cool and progressive spirit—it’s intangible goodwill— is undermined by the firm’s community-damaging business practices, investors often wind up paying the price."

I was glad that CEOs noted that consumers care because that is what we found in our recent The Company Behind the Brand: In Reputation We Trust. Consumers are no longer passive about the companies that make the products they buy. They care and do not like being surprised if they find that the product they adore is made by a company they detest.

At the meeting, CEOs were asked whether their company's community and social engagement was "rewarded" by its shareholders and I agree with the author that the response was positive. More than one-half (56%) believe shareholders reward firms for their corporate citizenship. And yes, we all know that it comes down to having the right metrics. It is awfully hard to pin down.

What is most interesting to me over the next 12 months is seeing how Apple's reputation fares as the Foxconn issue of employee mistreatment stays in the news. I believe that companies get just so many chances to soar above the damaging reputational news and then it reaches the tipping point where it surely matters. I often refer to the BP Effect. BP had three chances to make their reputation right -- the Texas City refinery episode, the Alaskan pipeline debacle and then the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The third one did them in.

Reputable Returns

One of the reasons that reputation has become so complex has to do with the vast portfolio of stakeholders that companies are asked to engage with. Years ago, companies primarily worried about financial analysts and labor unions. Today the stakeholder audience is deep and wide, ranging from one to many. Some companies have to consider the entire general public and others only 25 people whose opinions and perceptions count. The question that often arises is what's external engagement worth?  For that reason, I like what I read in some research by Witold Henisz at Wharton, Sinziana Dorobantu, senior research fellow at Wharton, and Lite Nartey at University of South Carolina ("Spinning Gold: The Financial Returns to External Stakeholder Engagement") As they said, external engagement pays.  "The researchers' goal was to figure out what role these stakeholder events played in companies' efforts to maximize profits. The answer: a very large role." The researchers looked at 26 gold mines over a 15 year period and coded over 50,000 stakeholder events covered in the media.  Stakeholder events included actions or expressions about cooperation or conflict with mine owners.  As for stakeholders, they included just about everyone..."local and national politicians and community leaders to priests, war lords, paramilitary groups, NGOs and international bodies like the World Bank."  The researchers designed a stakeholder index that revealed the level of stakeholder cooperation or conflict. Communicating and building bridges with their stakeholders led to profitability according to the researchers' anlaysis.

"We found in our research that the value of the relationship with politicians and community members is worth twice as much as the value of the gold that the 26 mines ostensibly control."

 Stakeholder engagement and cooperation helped companies deliver on budget and in a timely manner leading to competitive advantage and profitability. When cooperation was blocked, they found that mines were are open to delays, unrest and additional costs that led to closure or suspension. 

"It used to be the case that the value of a gold mine was based on three variables; the amount of gold in the ground, the cost of extraction and the world price of gold," he states. "Today, I can show you two mines identical on these three variables that differ in their valuation by an order of magnitude. Why? Because one has local support and the other doesn't."

This research can be applied to other industries and does a fine job of making the case for engagement and dialogue.

A reputation for cooperation and meeting stakeholders half way at least is critical. It is good to have data to back up the importance of minimizing conflict and its link to financial performance but I agree with the authors who say "it is not just corporate social responsibility, but enlightened self-interest."

Integrated Reporting

   Anglo Platinum produced its first fully integrated single volume annual report this year.  Here is the link. A friend of mine sent me this information because of my interest in "integrated reporting" where financial and non-financial information are unified into One Report. That is also the name of Harvard professor Robert Eccles new book, One Report, who is a leader in this area.  The discussion below was on an integrated reporting discussion site on LinkedIn that I could not access but that just might be me!  Perhaps I have to be invited to the discussion group.  I did try. The person to contact for more information is Stephen Bullock, Sustainable Development Manager at Anglo Platinum who is on LinkedIn. I found the reasons behind Anglo Platinum's integrated reporting very insightful and interesting, particularly this: "Firstly we wanted to demonstrate how CSR has been integrated into how the business is operated and run and this was difficult to do by producing a separate SD report. It created the perception that SD/CSR was an after thought i.e. how we make our profits is different to how we spend them."  The point of integratred reporting is well made in those two sentences.  See the input from Anglo Platinum below which appeared in the discussion area.

"This was a change from the two previous volumes with volume 1 in the past being the business report and volume 2 the sustainable development report. What were the drivers for integration? There were a few drivers that led us at Anglo Platinum to produce an integrated report. Firstly we wanted to demonstrate how CSR has been integrated into how the business is operated and run and this was difficult to do by producing a separate SD report. It created the perception that SD/CSR was an after thought i.e. how we make our profits is different to how we spend them. Secondly the new King Code on Corporate Governance in South Africa is encouraging integrated reporting; although the King Code does clearly state that integrated reporting does not mean one report. Thirdly there was the cost element. By producing one report we greatly reduced printing and posting costs associated with the distribution of our annual report to shareholders. What were the challenges? To the best of our knowledge no other resources company had at the time completed an integrated report and we were chartering new ground. We had to rely on examples and experience of integrated reporting from outside of the resources sector. Another big challenge we faced was to be able to ensure that our stakeholders who were used to getting certain information new exactly where to find it in the integrated report. This was overcome by producing an explanation behind our integrated report and a summary reference on page 1 to where stakeholders could find what information. In addition we did produce our "normal" SD report that is available in HTML and pdf format on the company's website for those stakeholders who simply want to scrutinize the CSR information. Initially we had hoped to create one set of financial and non-financial statements in the same section of the report. However due to differences in financial and CSR assurance we were unable to do this satisfactorily and took the decision to include all SD/CSR related data in the company statistics section of the report. We will be working with our auditing firms this year to overcome this problem for 2010 and hopefully achieve true integration in 2010."

Black Lists

Two weeks ago I went to the Harvard Club in Cambridge to accept an award on behalf of Weber Shandwick for the best corporate responsibility advisory firm in CR magazine's ranking of our category. No doubt about it...it was an honor. CR rated public relations agencies and advertising/marketing firms and we topped the list. The meeting in Cambridge was to honor CR's 100 Best Corporate Citizens and to gather people together to discuss corproate responsibility. This was before the Horizon oil spill which would have undoubtedly dominated the discussion. The meeting was terrific by the way.

What surprised me the most was that one of the issues that was given out in addition to the issue devoted to 100 Best Corporate Citizens was CR's Black List.

This made me wonder whether there will be a bumper crop of Black Lists in the next few years. Should we brace ourselves for Black Lists of the worst companies to work for, least ethical companies, worst companies for working mothers, worst MBA programs, most terrible IT companies to apply for, meanest CEOs, etc. Actually there have been many Worst CEO lists -- according to Google there are nearly 900,000 hits for Worst CEOs.  No surprise. But the Black List sounded deadly to me and I cracked open the issue to learn why a publication would go this far. Below is what CR's magazine's editor Jay Whitehead had to say about why they published the list. He makes some good points (transparency builds credibility) and I was glad to see why they did not take this List so lightly. As noted, many of the companies were on the list because they did not disclose information on the factors that go into CR's ranking. We will see what next year brings in terms of Black Lists but I can tell you one thing....Worst CEO lists will be here for eternity. As I always say (and I am sure someone else said it before me)....Just as CEOs get all the credit when things go right, they get all the blame when things go wrong.

"We have a confession. What we have not told you is that every year after we publish the “100 Best Corporate Citizens List,” someone reminds us that we also have an obligation to publish the bottom of the list. Up until now, we’ve ignored that reminder. But we cannot ignore it any more. The “Black List” is the result of recurring demands to see which companies are the most opaque among the Russell 1000.

In publishing the “Black List,” we do not take our responsibility lightly. Companies on the “Black List” represent the least-transparent companies in the Russell 1000, which is a tough place to be in the era of corporate responsibility and its ever-intensifying drive for transparency. We expect the companies on the “Black List” will be unhappy with us.  We offer them one piece of solace. All a “Black List” company has to do is make a few CR-related data points about itself publicly available. Report a couple data points to the Carbon Disclosure Project. Put your employee benefits policies online. Publish some human rights information. Get a formal climate change policy, and put it online. Some of the actions required are the public company hygiene equivalent of washing your hands after visiting the rest room. Yet all the “Black List” companies have made the decision to skip that basic step. 

While being a “100 Best Corporate Citizens List” company is a major accomplishment requiring considerable commitment and cost, indulging in just enough transparency to get your company out of the cellar is not that hard, nor that expensive. And one thing’s for certain: it’s less embarrassing than being on the “Black List.”

 The “Black List” methodology is exactly the same as what we use for the “100 Best Corporate Citizens List.” Our population of companies is still the Russell 1000. We used the same 349 data points in 7 categories. We used the same data provider, IW Financial. We contacted each of the companies by email to request that they provide any data they have to help us correct their files. We got no replies from the 30 companies that appear on the “Black List.”

 Where the “Black List” differs from the “Best” list is in the paucity of data. Where “100 Best” companies disclose hundreds of data points in Environment, Climate Change, Human Rights, Employee Relations, Finance, Governance and Philanthropy, “Black List” companies have disclosed virtually zero. In fact, all 30 of this year’s “Black List” companies tie for dead last in every category—with the exception of three-year total return, which varied a bit as you see on the Black List above. And the irony is that “Black List” companies significantly under-performed both the S&P 500 and the “100 Best Corporate Citizens List” companies in three-year total return."

CEOs as Corporate Citizen Chiefs

Interested in building and protecting your corporate reputation? Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship , along with support from The Hitachi Foundation , issued its fourth 2009 State of Corporate Citizenship report. The report  provides valuable insights from nearly 800 U.S. senior executives about their attitudes and perceptions on the value of corporate citizenship. Rightfully so, the authors preface the report by describing the difficult year that faced senior executives and the high expectations about continuing their support of corporate responsibility and giving initiatives. The good news is that nearly half of the executives surveyed believe that corporate citizenship is even more important in tough times and kept up their corporate citizenship efforts. Boston College Center says that this finding underscores how corporate citizenship has passed the value test. What do executives mean when they report on corporate citizenship? To them there are three important areas -- ethical business practices (91%), treating employees well (81%) and accurate financial management reporting (76%). When it comes to reputation, we have known for some time that reputations are enhanced when a company’s words match its actions in the corporate responsibility space.  Also, Weber Shandwick's Safeguarding Reputation research found that companies with better corporate citizenship track records recovered their reputations faster than those with poorer corporate citizenship records.

Interesting to me is that the survey found that CEOs are now leading the corporate citizenship agenda in three out of four companies. Understandably and not surprisingly, CEOs recognize that their reputations need improvement and corporate citizenship is one way to communicate to employees and other stakeholders that they are concerned about doing the right thing. The survey also identified REPUTATION as the number one driver of corporate citizenship (70% for all executives, 82% for large-company executives). Reputation shares that top spot for the first time with company traditions and values.

 Reputation is increasingly becoming a driving force in shaping company and leadership action. That can only be viewed as a positive. Glad to hear that senior executives agree.

More Responsible, Better Off

  Corporate responsibility is an integral component of reputation.  Even more so than ever because it matters to so many stakeholders – employees, customers, government, prospective talent, academics, media, bloggers and NGOs.  I think it might even matter to the financial community although perhaps to a lesser degree.  However, analysts have noticed its importance as we have seen with the proliferation of socially responsible investing funds.

In 2008, Weber Shandwick's Planet 2050 corporate responsibility and sustainability practice conducted a proprietary analysis that demonstrated the rising prominence of corporate responsibility on leadership agendas. Corporate responsibility mentions in global Fortune 100 annual report CEO Letters to Shareholders increased 18 percent from 2003 to 2007. In 2007, energy efficiency and carbon emissions were the dominant corporate responsibility agenda initiatives addressed in Global 100 CEO Letters to Shareholders. These topics barely figured in CEO annual report Letter mentions in 2003. To a lesser extent, but still noteworthy, leaders in 2007 highlighted their eco-friendly products—such as hybrid cars and healthy food products—in their Letters to Shareholders. Volunteerism, a topic featured in 2003 CEO annual report Letters, appeared less frequently in 2007.

As business leaders seemed to increasingly  commit  to corporate responsibility initiatives prior to the economic meltdown, we thought we’d look into whether such efforts helped soften the financial blow of the stock market collapse in 2008.

Using the 2008 Fortune Most Accountable Companies list as the measure of corporate commitment to social and environmental goals, Weber Shandwick explored the relationship between accountability  and stock price performance within the Fortune Global 100. The Accountability Rating was first developed by AccountAbility and Csrnetwork and designed with Asset4.  Since nearly every company on this list experienced a share price decline during 2008, the analysis focused on the average percentage change of closing prices on December 31, 2007 and December 31, 2008. It was of particular interest that 9 out of the top 10 most accountable companies were European (GE was the only American company).

We found that the top 10 most accountable global companies performed better than the overall global Fortune 500 in terms of share price and profitability.  When compared to the 10 least accountable companies, the most accountable ones performed better. We were a bit surprised by the +1% lift in profitability among the least accountable and discovered that two highly profitable companies – Petronis at #99 and Berkshire Hathaway at #100 – were on the list, therefore driving the 1% increase. Even when we take Berkshire Hathaway out of the group, the difference is not as dramatic as we expected. The nine least accountable companies fell to -3% in terms of profitability. If Petronis and Berkshire Hathaway both come out the eight least accountable companies fall to -16%.

 

Total Global 500

10 Most Accountable

10 Least Accountable

Share price

-43%

-22%

-35%

Profit

+5%

+46%

+1%

 

 

 

 

The analysis shows that even in an unprecedented  year like 2008, the most responsible companies  outperformed their peers. As my fellow colleague and founder of Planet2050 Brendan May said, "It is not surprising that effective and genuine corporate responsibility impacts the bottom line, in good times and bad." Companies cannot afford to abandon their corporate responsibility efforts although it is understandable if progress slows in this economy.  Companies that abandon corporate responsibility and sustainability efforts are proof positive that it was all for show in the first place.

Corporate Responsibility Survives and What to Do about CSR in China

   Good news. Corporate responsibility makes it through the recession. Hurrah. An article in the Financial Times by Michael Skapinker supports his argument by citing that despite the recession where people are cutting down on premium foods, only about 10% have cut back on ethical produce. And Marks and Spencer (M&S) who made a big bet on sustainability with its Plan A (there is no Plan B!), is saving money on its CSR practices. So that’s all good news for those of us who believe that corporate responsibility is an integral component of reputation and one that has not let us down (nor have we let it down).  The last paragraph of Skapinker’s article says it well:

 

“This [saving money] is the key to companies’ stubborn adherence to corporate social responsibility. They have worked out how to make it pay. Many of their initiatives help to cut costs or sustain supplies. They allow customers to continue to regard themselves as ethical during difficult times. They also help the companies to improve their public reputations at a time when business is widely held to be responsible for the downturn.”

 

Not surprisingly when I first read this paragraph, I read public reputations as public relations. In a way, this confirms why I am in the public relations field – to improve public reputations. Since there is no such thing anymore as an UNpublic reputation (everything internal is external today), I can really say that I am in the field of public reputations. I like this twist.

 

On another but somewhat importantly-related subject, I was reading about last year’s Sichuan Earthquake in a newsletter published by knowledge@wharton (you should subscribe if you don't already). I was in China weeks after the earthquake and wrote about it on my blog at the time. In fact, a lot of the media coverage I received was in response to whether I thought companies were doing enough. The recent article does an excellent job of explaining what I experienced about the fiercely negative images of some multinationals (MNCs) in terms of corporate giving perceptions. I saw that some MNCs were on these shame lists that were being circulated online and inciting boycotts and negative opinion. The general consensus in China was that MNCs were not contributing enough and not in a timely manner to the 70,000 earthquake victims who lost their lives and five million left homeless. At the time, I did not know that there was a term for these maligned MNCs but the article references them as “international iron roosters” – that is, birds that do not give up one single feather. In other words, tightfisted. Being sensitive to negative public sentiment, many of these MNCs increased their charitable donations and met with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to understand what was expected of them in China. I should note, and so does the Wharton authors, that even Chinese companies were criticized for insufficient donations to earthquake victims.

 

The article points out three must-dos when it comes to China and maintaining your reputation in challenging times. These should be on every company’s What to Do list if something like this happens again and you want to keep your reputation intact. They are:

 

1.     Get Straight to the Top or Distribute Decision-Making. Since many MNCs have multi-layered levels of management and multi-faceted reporting lines, companies need to have a clear, direct lines to the top when decisions are urgent and reputations are at stake. Companies should prepare processes for determining when a decision is urgent. Much of the problems that beset MNCs were the bureaucracy that needed to be hacked through to get a decision made about how much could be contributed. If this is too hard, companies should give local managers the necessary decision-making authority.

2.     Decide Fast and Make Visible. Some companies were criticized because their contributions came late or they did not make their donations known. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, some U.S. companies kept their donations quiet because they did not want it to look like they were only donating to improve their public images. In addition, many companies in the U.S. are torn between being humble or vocal when it comes to corporate responsibility. But in China during an incident of such horrific magnitude, those companies that kept quiet were seen as non-contributors and blamed for being insensitive and profit-mongers. So speak up.

3.     Find your Advocates and Use Your Online Resources to the Max. Since such a large proportion of Chinese citizens are online, make sure you know what is being said about your company and its contributions. Your reputation matters and myths and rumors spread like wildfire. For all you know, you are on some boycott list and people are picketing your stores and products. Find your fans or advocates and make sure they are there to support your efforts or correct misunderstandings, online and offline.

 

Thanks to Skapinker and to knowledge@wharton for making this a good learning day when I should be outside.