As Ben and Jerry’s, the US ice-cream maker with a social mission
sold out to Unilever, one of the first questions was whether the new
owner would continue to donate 7.5 per cent of pre-tax profits to social
action projects. The fact that this was an issue at all - and that
Unilever pledged to continue the donations, shows the extent to which
companies are taking social responsibilities seriously.
’Businesses are coming to recognise they are part of the fabric of
society and not distinct from it,’ says Rob Cameron, chairman of design
and communications consultancy Flag. ’Initially this idea was driven by
high-profile radicals such as The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick, but views
that were once outside the mainstream are now held by many business
leaders who recognise their connection to the world at large.’
Quentin Alexander, managing director of Addison, the corporate
marketeering arm of WPP, says the days have gone when an organisation
only needed to have a relationship with its institutional shareholders.
’Companies have to create effective dialogue with a range of stakeholder
groups, including customers and staff, if they want to succeed.
Stakeholders are increasingly aware of the impact of commerce on their
lives. For them, ethical and social reputation matter as much as
According to Charlotte Hines, associate director of research company
MORI, there is firm evidence that corporations are taking their social
’In our recent Captains of Industry study, we asked the leaders of the
top 100 companies what proportion of their expenditure they would be
putting into this area over the next 12 months,’ says Hines. ’Over half
said there would be an increase on an already growing budget.’
Other research demonstrates this is what the public wants and expects
from businesses. The Fleishman-Hillard /Ipsos report into European
Attitudes Towards Corporate Community Investment, published in June
1999, revealed that 89 per cent of British respondents believe large
organisations should channel resources into social problems. And 83 per
cent claimed they would be more likely to purchase products from a
company if they knew it was engaged in such activities.
Countrywide Porter Novelli director John Orme says organisations are
coming to recognise that their most valuable assets are intangible,
including corporate reputation, employee knowledge, brand valuation, and
the processes by which a company operates.
Orme is in his second year of part-time secondment to the DTI’s
Innovation Unit, a body made up of 25 representatives from industry.
Part of the unit’s role involves talking to 50 CEOs from across the
business spectrum, to discover how leaders decide which assets they
invest in as a business.
Hilary Sutcliffe at social responsibility specialist Shared View was the
lead consultant on the DTI’s interim report, to be published this
She says this has been driven by the media interest in good causes and
publicity-savvy pressure groups. She says the way companies approach
social responsibility depends on the areas which are priorities for
their business - social exclusion for banks and ethical sourcing for
textile producers, for example.
’The City is beginning to look at and understand social responsibility
as an intangible, which adds value to customers and employees as well as
share price,’ says Sutcliffe.
A robust corporate reputation is arguably the most valuable intangible
asset a company possesses. Social responsibility is seen as an effective
way of banking goodwill with stakeholders. But does every company need
to consider becoming a dutiful corporate citizen?
Cameron of Flag thinks so. ’All companies make an impact upon society
and thus have the choice and opportunity to contribute positively.
Obviously environmental issues are more pressing in a chemical company
than a software house, but all companies should consider corporate
Mark Bunting, head of consulting at internet intelligence agency
Infonic, believes it even applies to dot.coms. ’You don’t need to have a
physical presence to develop an image as an ethical or unethical
operator. If anything, dot.coms are more vulnerable, since their entire
business can be attacked electronically.’
Bunting believes few dot.coms have thought about their reputation.
’Very few have thought outside the traditional boxes of advertising and
marketing. Just because they don’t have factories belching out
carcinogens, it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from a socially
While doing good undoubtedly brings its own rewards, the decision by
companies to act in a socially responsible way is informed by sound
business reasons. Matthew McKenna, account director at Harrison Cowley,
works for client Whitbread, which won the Business in the Community
’Company of the Year’ award in 1998 for excellence in corporate
He says: ’Whitbread’s community investment programme is not about
philanthropy. The company expects its investment to achieve tangible
business benefits and help meet the company’s overall corporate
objectives. The programme involves all employees and is an excellent
method of staff recruitment and retention.’
Employment, therefore, is one of Whitbread’s key reasons for operating
social responsibility schemes, but the reasons vary depending on the
nature of the business. For City-based companies fighting over talented
graduates, a sound reputation will ensure they get the pick of the
Other factors include pressure from highly articulate NGOs; the desire
to foster good relations with local government - watchdogs of planning
applications; and Government legislation.
Chris Genasi, chief executive at Shandwick’s corporate practice,
believes the internet is another catalyst for change, giving companies
no place to hide. ’We would always advise a new client to assume they
will be on Panorama, even if they have been getting away with something
for years. It could all come out through a whistle blower, an undercover
journalist or a disgruntled employee.’
In addition, Bunting points out that organisations which operate social
responsibility programmes are increasing their value in the eyes of the
City, by enhancing their reputations as thoughtful employers,
considerate neighbours and dutiful corporate citizens.
’Despite its obsession with quantitative analysis, reputation is as
important in the City as anywhere else. Increasingly, a
socially-thoughtful approach is part and parcel of excellent management,
and the City is beginning to recognise this, even if it has not yet been
built into its models and spreadsheets,’ he says.
So faced with a plethora of good causes, how should an organisation
decide which ones to support? According to MORI’s 1999 Corporate Social
Responsibility report, education is the most pressing social issue,
followed by unemployment, helping people with disabilities, and then
environment and regeneration.
But there’s a difference between really getting involved, and just
paying lip service to a good cause, which won’t impress consumers.
Whatever organisations a business chooses to associate itself with must
be deep-rooted within its values.
’Who would be impressed if a water company declared that it was
committing to support for the physically disabled in its region?’ asks
Bunting. ’This might be a laudable thing to do, but in consumers’ eyes
its primary responsibility is environmental, and if the rivers and
beaches are still filthy, all the charity work in the world isn’t going
to improve its reputation.’
When Shandwick client Lever Bros supported Comic Relief with Persil
Colour, it used the colour red as its link with the charity’s trademark
Brand share increased dramatically during this period, according to
The tie-in for children’s charity NCH was the millennium, the date by
which it aimed to eradicate child homelessness. Ken Deeks, director at
Kaizo, is behind this September’s Byte Nite, which will see hi-tech
company leaders sleeping rough on the streets of London for one night to
raise money for Action for Children 2000.
At Whitbread, McKenna says regional community affairs directors travel
the country deciding which areas to invest in. ’This grassroots activity
gives them an in-depth knowledge of local issues, allowing them to best
decide how to marry Whitbread’s business needs with the needs of local
The needs of the local community are paramount for cement manufacturer
Blue Circle, one of Countrywide Porter Novelli’s clients. Its quarries
are located in rural areas, where there is an abundance of limestone,
shale and chalk. Add this physical disruption to the inconvenience
caused by lorries ferrying the product along country roads and chimneys
belching out condensation, and you have, according to Orme, a triple
whammy. For Blue Circle, social responsibility is therefore a
’The organisation has a policy of gradual restoration of its quarry
works,’ explains Orme. ’When the land is reclaimed, it is given to the
community, to use as, say, a sports field.’
As a large local employer, it is doubly important that Blue Circle gets
it right. It has a community relations programme to keep local residents
informed of work at its plants. It is involved in sponsorship and works
with local schools on environmental projects.
Last November, the Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility issued
a framework for organisations to help them understand and improve their
ethical performance, and as a means for others to judge the validity of
AccountAbility director of development Robert Beckett says: ’Because
corporate social responsibility processes are at an early stage of
development, it is important to bring together many aspects of an
organisation that have been previously undervalued, such as employee
education programmes, and link them into a coherent pattern to encourage
effective examination and valuation.’
Agencies are also involved in measuring the success of their corporate
social responsibility programmes. Genasi says Shandwick works with
several research companies to track opinion among target audiences such
as the local community, employees and local government.
McKenna says the success of a social responsibility programme can be
measured through a variety of tangible business benefits. These include
increased visitors to Whitbread’s leisure businesses, positive media
coverage, and improving relationships with local councils.
But while social responsibility can add value to a company, it is never
going to save the day alone. It’s up to PR practitioners to ensure that
the positive messages being put across about a company’s involvement
with the community are married to traditional assets of customer service
and effective management.
BT SUPPORTS COMMUNICATION AT THE HEART OF THE COMMUNITY
Communication is the common thread running through the various social
responsibility programmes run by telecoms giant BT.
With a 14-year history, the BT Swimathon is its longest-running
The event takes place in swimming pools around the country for one week
in March and this year, was on target to have raised pounds 1.5 million
BT community operations manager Peter Thompson says: ’BT is a
communications company and we tend to work with organisations for whom
these skills are important. It makes sense to contribute to causes close
to our business interests.’
Given the high profile of Swimathon - it is Europe’s largest swimming
event - recipients are generally better-known charities, including
Shelter, Child Line and Marie Curie Cancer Care. BT benefits in several
As the sponsor, BT is linked with the event at the 515 participating
pools through on-site marketing and a national and regional PR
Swimathon is also a way to show BT’s 125,000 UK employees where some of
its investment in the community is spent. A major internal
communications drive is organised each year, with BT ambassadors
volunteering to act as area co-ordinators.
Thompson agrees that social responsibility is a growing trend: ’More
companies are realising they are part of the community and their
prosperity depends on the community,’ he says.
He adds there is a growing recognition in industry that social
responsibility can add value to a brand and to a company’s
BT Future Talk in Education is another event which ties in with BT’s
chief business interest. Launched last June, the roadshow aims to visit
3,500 schools by July 2001. On board is a troupe of actors who use
storytelling to focus on the importance of communication skills.
Thompson says the roadshows have been well received, and the project
will be enhanced by adding BT School Awards, grants of pounds 25,000 for
collaborative projects. Other on-going projects include BT School
Friends, a project which sees employees volunteering to give reading
support to schools.