Tough economic times lead to tough decisions for business - and nowhere are these decisions more challenging than in managing corporate responsibility. I was recently asked whether I felt it was time for a company to cut back on its corporate responsibility initiatives. They wanted to know if these 'softer' investments were delivering real value. Worse still, was the brand's corporate reputation being undermined by spending money outside the core business objectives?
My answer was that such initiatives are still important - but the questions themselves identify the choices to be made. Anything seen to be extravagant, overbranded or simply a strange bedfellow could, and perhaps should, lead to questions about the brand's behaviours - and affect its reputation. Corporate responsibility for the sake of it won't be credible to anyone - your people, your customers or your stakeholders - and could do more damage than good.
For a long while, companies were interested in sponsoring or supporting initiatives, events or organisations because they either put them on the map or were simply 'the right thing to do'. This certainly worked to build brand recognition and association for many corporates, while softening the images of others who had previously struggled with their reputations.
However, in the current economic climate, tougher questions are being asked of such ventures, of their relevance to the brand and the value delivered for the business. It is no longer enough to show how corporate responsibility and community initiatives are building brand recognition or a positive association. They must increase people's understanding of the core values of your business and in doing so grow consumer, stakeholder and employee trust in your brand.
The companies that are most successful at building their reputations in this way invest in harnessing their own expertise to address issues that affect their customer and stakeholder groups. Partnerships based on experience and understanding are far more effective than sponsorship based solely on visibility and profile.
Sky's work with British Cycling is a great example of a true partnership. Sport is a major driver of Sky's business, and it has associated itself with it at all levels, from Team Sky to the community-based mass participation Sky Ride programme. Those who watch sport on Sky can participate in sport with it too - and enjoy all the benefits that brings.
The relevance of partnerships to employees is also highly important. Too often major sponsorships or initiatives are entered into by companies without enough thought about how they will help the professional development and motivation of their staff. As an absolute minimum your own people must be ambassadors for your corporate responsibility activities, and building employee pride in what you do is a critical retention tool.
Corporate partnerships and sponsorships can often seem far away from the people on the ground, but London 2012 is an example of where many companies got it right. Several have launched volunteering initiatives for staff that include sport, and others have focused on sport from a charitable perspective and will use their local presence to encourage their people to support local clubs and groups.
So the real answer to the question is not a simple 'yes' or 'no'. The advice I would give is to turn your 'soft' initiatives into 'hard' initiatives - ones that are relevant to the business, motivating for your people - and reassuring for your customers and stakeholders.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
How would you deal with an assault from UK Uncut on your clients?
Be clear about the facts and formulate a response that explains the position simply. A face to the brand in such a situation is often much better than hiding behind a statement. It's important not to get into a war of words with the organisation, or to find yourself defending standard business practices.
Which brand has gained most, reputation-wise, in the wake of the riots?
The social media-led Broom Army clean-up perhaps helped salvage the reputation of one brand - UK plc - in the eyes of an international community that was shocked to see anarchy in the UK.