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Authenticity: the real deal

In an age of greater transparency, brands should follow four simple rules to get consumers onside.

In the aftermath of the Bangladesh textile factory disaster, it is no surprise that public scrutiny of business operations and management has reached a new crescendo.

During the past year, Cohn & Wolfe Corporate Affairs has been exploring the themes of transparency and authenticity, while considering their importance in building positive brand perceptions and loyalty.

Our research, carried out by ICM, revealed that after quality and price, business transparency is now the third most important factor influencing consumer purchasing decisions.

But what does this mean for politics and the public affairs practitioners who operate in what is commonly perceived as a murky world of influence and intrigue?

Distrust of the political class is nothing new; from Aristophanes to The Thick of It, satirical jibes have been founded on the premise that the ruling elite is interested only in obscuring the truth. And yet, the splurge of recent crises and scandals with the political process centre stage, such as MPs' expenses or Leveson, has acted as a catalyst for more fundamental questions on how policy is made and the role of public affairs.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life claims: 'There has been a significant decline in levels of public trust and confidence in the integrity of public office-holders and institutions.' A YouGov survey in October 2012 revealed that only 26 per cent of the public believed that MPs were honest, compared with 34 per cent in 2010.

While there are various issues at play, transparency is at the heart of the debate. For companies and brands, it is no longer acceptable - or good business - for public affairs programmes to be separated from other areas of communication. In these more transparent times,inconsistencies are more likely to be uncovered and organisations more likely to suffer a backlash when their policy positions appear at odds with their public profile.

Last summer, BMW was criticised after a leaked internal memo seemed to outline its opposition to European Commission proposals for stricter limits on vehicle emissions, despite the firm appearing to use its position as the official Olympic fleet provider to extol its environmental credentials.

Volkswagen similarly suffered attacks over its expressed aim to become 'the most eco-friendly automaker in the world' after Greenpeace alleged the group was the largest single funder of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, which, it claimed, was leading the opposition to new emissions limits.

Then in April, the Financial Times reported claims that Coca-Cola was opposing government efforts around the world to limit sales of high-calorie products, while simultaneously launching an ad campaign on its commitment to reducing obesity. However evidence-based its arguments were, to many it looked like two different and potentially contradictory strategies.

Recognising we are operating in an age of transparency, where internal emails could ultimately be subject to public scrutiny, leads to four simple steps needed to act authentically:

  • Recognise that a lobbying strategy may face public scrutiny and could add complexity to your customer and consumer profile.
  • Be ready to explain the core of your business' strategic interests.
  • Ensure that corporate affairs and public affairs are fully aligned.
  • Be explicit about your objectives and how they can help broader policy goals. There is no benefit in trying to mask your real intentions.

Rory Fletcher is an account director at Cohn & Wolfe.


Views in brief

Is the practice of public affairs now inextricably linked with corporate reputation work?

It should be, but often isn't. Whether responding to a crisis or engaging on regulatory issues, to be effective it is essential that information cascades through to the entire business and that tone of voice remains consistent.

Which TV programme title best sums up the culture of your agency?

QI. We pride ourselves on digging deeper to think beyond the obvious, although we like to think we are more than 'quite' interesting.

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