The establishment is currently facing two rising societal tides demanding action, writes Lansons Chief Executive and Co-Founder Tony Langham…
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst demanded “deeds not words” of the establishment when she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (later known as the suffragettes). Even though it didn’t seem so to everyone at the time, change was inevitable. We’re at a similar point in history now. Speaking to the United Nations in December last year, Swedish school girl activist Greta Thunberg said:
“We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future… We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”
Since that speech her attitude has hardened. She’s currently telling New Yorkers (via film, while they’re waiting for Bjork’s encore) that “if change is impossible in this system, then maybe it’s time to change the system”.
The establishment is currently facing two rising societal tides demanding action: to reduce inequality and to combat climate change. Politicians are responding to these pressures by polarising and at least appearing to be more radical, whether riding these tides (like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Pedro Sanchez in Spain) or challenging them head on (like Donald Trump in the USA and Scott Morrison in Australia). Big businesses are, in the main, silent on these issues and that’s a problem. “Companies that fail to take a position are now perceived as favouring the status quo” says Holmes Report founder Paul Holmes*. And the status quo, the establishment, is not popular across the Western world.
I believe that we’ve reached a point where businesses need to take action to tackle inequality and climate change. In the current environment, this is, reputationally, the least risky thing to do. Furthermore, business as a whole needs to prove that capitalism can be ‘responsible’, if it wants the current system to survive.
Things may be more urgent than that. According to the FT’s Pilita Clark (Time’s Up For The Golden Age of Corporate Greenwashing, 20th May 2019): “In the UK, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, says a future Labour government would delist companies from the London Stock Exchange that are not doing enough to tackle the “climate emergency.” It’s also likely that consumers will become more “issues aware” in their purchasing. 72% of Americans expect brands to demonstrate that they are positive contributors to society and also want to see brands connecting people in a fractured society, according to research for Sprout Social
At Lansons we’re having a greater number of conversations with clients around reputation and society’s expectations of a successful organisation. The key question is always the same: Is behaviour change required, or can the business just speak up more about what it already does?
To guide the conversation around inequality, we’ve developed a thought provoker, below:
Invariably we find that very few companies are exceeding society’s expectations on climate change and inequality. Behaviour change and new initiatives are required. We also find that surprisingly few companies can tell their story in a way that appeals to someone who doesn’t understand their sector.
Greta Thunberg’s impact and the subsequent Extinction Rebellion protests – and the popularity of Labour’s ‘For the many, not the few’ message – should be taken as signs that change is coming, just as it was in Emmeline Pankhurst’s time. To enhance and even maintain their reputation, today’s companies are going to need deeds and words.
* Essay: “The future of reputation management consultancy” by Paul Holmes, featured in my book, Reputation Management: The Future of Corporate Communications and Public Relations published by Emerald Publishing, December 2018