A rising topic within the business world is social purpose. What do companies stand for? How should they conduct themselves? And what do people expect from them?

It was timely then, that last week’s CIPR National Conference focused on accountable leadership and social purpose.

The day opened with a call to action from CIPR President Sarah Hall: “As reputation guardians, it falls to us to do the right thing.”

Over the course of the day, it became clear why.

What is social purpose?

According to John O’Brien, European Managing Partner at ONE HUNDRED, social purpose is the latest stage of a journey that started with individual philanthropy before moving onto Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and later sustainability. As times have changed, so too have the expectations the public has placed on business.

He defined purpose as “Why something is done, or created, or for which something exists.”

The role of leadership in finding purpose

Every speaker said that operating with a strong social purpose depends on good leadership. A strong leader, with a clear vision, is essential to drive action.

The benefits to a business are two-fold:

  • Internally: a strong vision and purpose motivates and engages staff, leading to better business performance.
  • Externally: a stronger reputation, better trading environment and ultimately, a better society, are achieved.

BBC journalist Jonny Dymond explained that companies are now more accountable, moving social purpose up the corporate agenda. He said there were three reasons for this:

  • An increase in external organisations holding companies to account, such as charities, international courts and issues-based campaigners
  • A vastly changed media environment with technology empowering new voices and allowing ‘on the ground’ broadcasts from anywhere
  • Changing economic and political viewpoints challenging existing values and narratives (from a western, political perspective)
Businesses can take the lead

A strong purpose can provide businesses with a platform, if they are willing to take it. Josh Hardie, Deputy Director General at the CBI, said that organisations have much to gain if they speak up on big issues. He pointed to Brexit as an example, arguing that businesses can influence the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU if they take a stance.

He added that businesses might choose not to do this, as it may impact share prices, cause fear or divide employees as they are likely to hold a range of opinions. However, he cited research that revealed 90% of the public want to hear what businesses think about issues. It’s a topic I covered in an earlier blogpost. The demand is there.

Who does this already?

According to O’Brien, companies with purpose are divided between those that had found purpose over time, those that were built on purpose (such as social enterprises) and those that needed to find purpose because they couldn’t continue to operate as they had previously (for example, due to a scandal).

Many that had developed their business around purpose were finding that they outperformed their peers, as the slide from Roger Steare shows below (based on the book “Firms of Endearment).

It strengthens the case for purpose. However, it has to be developed carefully. Molly Aldridge, global CEO at MC Saatchi Public Relations, listed the common pitfalls for businesses, including that company purpose can often be superficial or difficult to understand. She suggested that a successful purpose should apply to everyone in the business and empower them to act.

Positive communication

Communication works best when the messaging matches the reality. It means that a company’s social purpose cannot be an add-on or a strapline. It must be an integral part of the business.

For companies to get this right, they need to look at:

  • How they operate
  • How their business affects people (from key stakeholders through to wider society)
  • What they can do to change things.

Richard Walker, Managing Director at Iceland, argued that organisations that ignore this process are “doomed to failure” as people’s expectations have changed.

He was passionate about Iceland taking the lead on issues that he felt were important to him personally, as well as his company and their customers. This passion emphasised one of the main themes of the day – that working towards a greater social purpose will only be successful if the business leader cares about an issue and is willing to stand up for it.

As communicators, we can help companies to find this purpose, by using our skills to understand what key stakeholders want and need from organisations. From there, our role is to articulate it clearly, both inside and outside the business, and help to deliver or influence the changes that are important to these stakeholders. The opportunity is huge.


Photo by Jeremy Bishop, via Unsplash

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