In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is the very purpose of its existence, argued Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group in India 175 years ago. Today the idea that business exists to serve not its shareholders but society at large is at best a high-minded ambition, at worst illegal.
But for David Landsman, executive director of Tata Ltd, the holding company for all Tata’s operations in the UK and Europe, that one remark has virtually become a job description. He is responsible for a portfolio of 19 companies including Tetley Tea, Jaguar Land Rover and Corus steel, with £25bn in revenues and a work force of 60,000.
Landsman may be head honcho at Tata, he may have swish offices overlooking Buckingham Palace in central London, but he has no direct management control over any of the operating companies. Rather, his brief is to lend coherence to the Tata group in the eyes of customers, legislators and employees by reference to a clear set of Tata values (aka the Tata brand).
These revolve largely around elements of what you might call Tata’s founding myth: community and social responsibility. And they reflect the fact that two-thirds of Tata shares are ultimately owned by Tata Charities.
"We are a bit like a Quaker company. My role is to represent the holding company and the group in Europe," he says. "UK brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley Tea and Corus Steel have joined the group; each is independently managed but they have signed up to the Tata values and brand. We work with them. They are my customers if you like. We help them by leveraging the group."
The key to this, he says, is communication, and that makes communication one of the most important components of his job alongside developing new businesses and supporting the operating companies. "I think about comms a lot," he says.
"It’s a very important part of my role. We are in such a wide range of sectors that comms provides our licence to operate. So I do a bit of comms every day."
Landsman was in the foreign office for 25 years before joining Tata in 2013. As our man in Albania and then Greece, he learned a thing or two about the importance of coherent communication. So one of the first things he did on taking over was to set up its first corporate affairs office in Europe, aiming to provide what he describes as "an integrated approach to corporate comms, public affairs and business development".
"We want to be trusted both for the way we work and the quality of what we do, and also for our corporate citizenship work and talking to our staff," he says.
Tata is telling the story of its global citizenship for the first time by investing £70m in a global ad campaign through JWT focusing on its values. "People increasingly ask who are those people behind the well known brands? You don’t want to be too boastful but you don’t want to hide away," observes Landsman.
"We need to have a global perspective which in our case is multi-local. We want to be part of the economic furniture of our host countries."
So despite his exalted role Landsman thinks of himself as guardian or manager of the Tata brand in Europe. He is clearly very positive about all the things comms can do for a firm with a matrix structure like Tata.
He sees the Tata brand as a sort of protective shield thrown round the Tata operating companies. But when things go wrong he sees comms as the last part of the solution, not necessarily the first: "My personal feeling is react quickly and sort out the substance of the issue and then the PR can follow."