The Co-op needs to prove its relevance

The Co-op should not retire from the public sphere, but needs to champion why its values remain relevant.

In the depths of the downturn we were led to believe that The Co-operative Group, and its bank, were different from other corporate brands.

Years later, the group is in massive financial trouble. Former City minister and Co-op board member Lord Myners recently spoke of a £3.5bn impact to its value, dubbing it "one of the great national business calamities".

Businesses can bounce back from monetary losses but the erosion of members’ and stakeholders’ trust in the company means The Co-op also has to dig itself out of a hole when it comes to public affairs. The group recently has been marked by a lack of stakeholder engagement and management, particularly among its cheerleaders, and a failure to stick to core values.

The formation of the ultimate super-mutual in 2009 emboldened the board and allowed it to compete with the traditionalist capitalist business models and take on risk.

No bad thing, but there appears to have been no preparation for the moment it all started going south. Stakeholders – political, regulatory and business – were kept at arm’s length.

It is hard to be completely transparent, but there has been a year of toxic news, with each drop letting investors, members and customers know that it was worse than they thought.

Perhaps the worst excesses have been briefings that led to the resignations of chief executive Euan Sutherland and Myners, both respected, and both citing the "ungovernable" business.

Such behaviour is often a clear symptom of an organisation with no alignment. The public affairs function can play a critical role, as when under fire an organisation needs to focus on driving advocacy from supportive stakeholders, engaging with the undecided middle to convince them of the organisation’s desire to fix the wrongs, and neutralise detractors.

Good public affairs can protect The Co-op, which has a 150-year heritage that few other businesses can claim. The business needs to recognise that the anger it faces is only a product of the passion it arouses and withdrawing from the political sphere would be wrong.

There needs to be more comprehension of The Co-operative movement, and it needs to re-articulate its values in the way the credit union movement is slowly starting to do.

The fact that there is a political party associated with the movement, largely funded by the group, is not something it should run from. The public affairs team should engage Co-op MPs, shadow chancellor Ed Balls among them, and involve them in restating The Co-operative’s values.

It should also articulate to detractors, many of them on the government benches, that Co-operative values are just as relevant today as they were 150 years ago and can, with the right governance, contribute to growth and stability.

An inability to explain why it exists will not help any business protect its reputation, and just saying you are the ‘nice’ business is unlikely to get you through a crisis.  

Jo-ann Robertson is partner and managing director, corporate and public affairs, Ketchum

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