Christopher Clarke, Epoch: Time to back our businesses

Anti-business sentiment is growing, but companies can be a force for good in society.

The world has changed utterly over the past two years. Before September 2008, it would have been unthinkable that some of the world's most fervent free-marketeers would advocate state intervention totalling billions; or that the Iranian presidential election would have been disrupted by unknown medium Twitter; or that the UK, and most developed countries, would face the bleakest public debt situation in history.

These changes have reshaped business, government, society and media. As such, approaches to corporate reputation must be reshaped.

Last year, a new global settlement emerged from the G20, and government intervention was back. The language of politics and politicians is more critical of business than it has been for a generation. You only need to look at Obama's stance on BP or the coalition government's language about banking reform.

While much of this rhetoric can be understood in the context of our times, it is symbolic of a new and potentially dangerous narrative in which business (certainly financial services companies but not only them) is the villain, consumers are the victims and government is the vindicator.

This narrative represents a challenge for those of us who manage corporate reputation. We face a battle on three fronts.

First, the relationship between politics and business has shifted. New stakeholders are continuing to emerge. But not only are audiences more fragmented, there is uncertainty about how actors will act. Gone are the old lines that divide interventionists and neoliberals, the left and the right. Keynesianism is most likely to be the ingredient for even the most free market recipes in the 21st century.

Second, there is a battle to adjust to an economy that is growing slowly - or more slowly. We face a longer period of slower growth than anticipated. This means that companies must restlessly search for growth because it won't come purely from a rising market.

Diversifying into new markets and developing new products and services must be the drivers of growth, and corporate reputation must be its catalyst.

Third, and arguably most important, is the battle to restate the case for business and its contribution to society. We need to prevent the perception taking hold that business only fuels the fortunes of a few, is dismissive of the environment and has little to do with social progress. We must argue more than ever that business can and should be a force for progress on the big issues facing us today.

The challenge for us as communicators is to be part of the solution, by helping our organisations and clients connect to a more sceptical public and body politic and stay relevant. Those businesses that adapt quickly and are not emasculated by today's problems will be the winners. As the eyes and ears of business, it is up to us to become the corporate ambassadors that will help businesses adapt to the post-credit crunch era.

It is also up to us to shake off any temptation to adopt a command and control approach to corporate reputation. The hallmarks of a solid and authentic reputation won't be a company's ability to deliver perfectly honed soundbites and precision media management. It will be about delving into controversial issues, taking a viewpoint and engaging in robust conversations.

This is something we as communicators should embrace. It will help fuel greater creativity and will finally ensure that corporate reputation is no longer about outdated notions of trying to control the uncontrollable.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

The Mayor of London.

- What is the most important lesson to have emerged from the BP saga?

Plan for the expected (as well as the unexpected).

- To what extent do dwindling public sector budgets offer an opportunity for corporate CSR programmes to fill the void?

Corporate CSR programmes shouldn't try to fill the void. The most valuable contribution that companies can make to social progress is delivering new advances, creating jobs and generating wealth.

Christopher Clarke is managing director of Epoch

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