Tessa Jowell's appointment shows the value of placing social purpose centre stage

I am not surprised at Tessa Jowell's appointment as Chime Specialist Group chair - social purpose has been one of the PR industry's worst kept secrets over the past few years, with the discovery that values are an incredibly important part of reputation and building relationships with consumers and stakeholders.

Social purpose has to be lived to be believed and that goes for PR too, argues Peter Gilheany
Social purpose has to be lived to be believed and that goes for PR too, argues Peter Gilheany
Of course like so much in our industry it is a rediscovery rather than a discovery, as social purpose has been a driver for many businesses since the year dot. 

It has long been recognised that there is a social contract between business and society, sometimes driven defensively, sometimes progressively, most often a mixture of the two. 

The first great wave of industrial philanthropy as practised by Cadbury in the UK, for example, was driven by a potent mix of faith, a strong sense of social justice and a desire to demonstrate value in response to the threat of higher corporate taxes.

The context for the modern rebirth of social purpose as a mainstream driver within business has some similarities to then but with some crucial differences. 

You could see it simply as a defensive measure in response to dominant neo-liberal capitalism – businesses essentially developing and communicating their social purpose as their part of the unwritten bargain with government over lower taxes. 

It is certainly an aspect of it but nowhere near the whole story. Underlying the trend is the core insight that doing good is good for business. 

That starts, as it so often does, with the consumer.

Recent studies have found that 93 per cent of shoppers would buy a product associated with a cause while another report states that 86 per cent of people around the world believe that business needs to place at least equal weight on society’s interests as on business interests.

Jim Stengel, ex-CMO Procter & Gamble, argues that brands with a social mission or purpose outperform competition by close to 400 per cent.  

However, developing and communicating a social purpose can’t just be a box-ticking exercise – it must translate into everything a business says and does or it will never been sustainable and that business will be found out. 

Consumers are not stupid. They know window dressing when they see it and more than ever they have the power and opportunity to hold businesses to account. 

A consequence of living your values is that somewhere along the line someone will spot an area where you appear not to be doing so. 

A progressive business will be open about its own shortcomings and clear on what it is going to do to tackle them. 

A business that wears social purpose as an accessory might try to obfuscate its way out of trouble and is likely to simply dig a bigger hole.

For our industry, the same opportunities and dangers apply.
Agencies that simply see this as something to exploit for growth won’t build a sustainable business out of it. 

Annoyingly, perhaps, social purpose has to be lived to be believed and that goes for the PR industry as much as any other.

Peter Gilheany is director of Forster Communications

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