We can get big business to tackle society's big problems

Who'll solve the big social issues of our times: environmental sustainability, human rights, education, wider access to the Internet, obesity, and so on?

Who'll solve the big social issues of our times: environmental sustainability, human rights, education, wider access to the Internet, obesity, and so on?

You and I? These problems are simply too big to be solved by individuals.

Governments, then? But politics often prevent them from tackling these kinds of problems decisively.

Surprisingly, many of the best opportunities to work collectively and combat these big issues are best seized by private, for-profit companies. And it's up to us as reputation strategists to nudge them along.

I know, companies are supposed to be too fiercely competitive to work together for the greater good. When corporations make altruistic gestures, naysayers inevitably dismiss the measures as the self-serving acts of big business. Investors, meanwhile, may see them as a distraction. So companies avoid jumping out front to drive positive action. It's safer behind the cubicle walls.

That's why it's so crucial for us to define these opportunities for our companies and industries and advocate for action and change. Thanks to the way corporate communicators touch all other functions and our maniacal external focus, we're better suited than anybody to crystallize this type of vision.

Consider environmental sustainability. Egged on by their corporate communicators, companies have developed environmentally friendly products, and entire industries have worked together to establish sustainable practices—earning good profits and increasing their brand equity along the way.

Now many companies are taking a broad, collaborative view on other key issues.

Take safer driving. You're probably familiar with the It Can Wait campaign, which spreads consumer stories that capture the devastating consequences of texting while driving. Who's behind the effort? AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

Or take technology accessibility. Since 2007, a nonprofit called One Laptop per Child has put millions of rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptops into the hands of underserved children. Among its big supporters: eBay, Google, News Corp., and Nortel.

Next, there's the harmful use of alcohol — an issue I'm especially passionate about in my current role. Last year, 13 global CEOs in the alcohol industry signed a first-ever shared commitment with five key areas of focus: reducing underage drinking, strengthening marketing codes of practice, providing consumer information and responsible product innovation, reducing drinking and driving, and enlisting retailers to reduce harmful drinking. A third-party auditor will review our progress annually and publicly report the findings. This is a meaningful step forward that no single law could have compelled these 13 companies to take.

Fortunately, we live in a world where consumers demand transparency and mindfulness. They know that businesses must sustain profitable growth — but can do so with a social conscience.

Big business, it turns out, is capable of decisive, large-scale action. As reputation strategists, we are in a unique position to propel such efforts. We can't in good faith spin our way out of society's issues. And since we can see the bigger picture, we have to make the case for banding together to address the greatest needs of our time.

Stacey Tank is SVP and chief corporate relations officer at Heineken.

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