Analysis: FDs face up to threat to corporate reputation

Research out this week suggests a widening of the traditional role of the finance director and a greater understanding among FDs of the need for stakeholder engagement.

Traditionally they concentrated on keeping numbers in order and investors informed, but these days finance directors find themselves having to communicate to a far wider audience, according to research out this week.

Edelman's Finance Directors and Stakeholder Engagement survey suggests FDs are no longer prepared to stick to their finance plans and leave the rest to the CEO and comms director.

Respondents to the survey indicate they believe share value is increasingly tied to reputation, that FDs have a role to play in maintaining this reputation and that non-financial audiences are becoming more important.

Crucially, more than 72 per cent of the 100 FDs questioned from among the FTSE 350 believe their firms' reputations among stakeholder groups such as NGOs, employees, regulators, media and business partners are becoming 'increasingly fragile'.

Yet rather than this indicating a breakdown in relations, Edelman UK head of financial comms Stephen Benzikie says the reason for this opinion is because FDs believe there is simply not enough engagement taking place with stakeholders.

Benzikie says that it is a case of 'fragility through neglect'; that while quoted firms have made 'leaps in corporate governance', they have concentrated on increasing transparency and financial reporting as it affects City institutions and media, and failed to engage the far wider range of stakeholders as the US has.

Back in a more old-school business environment, a fragile reputation among the likes of NGOs and media wouldn't necessarily have mattered much to the average FD, as long as the traditional business model appeared to continue working.

But there are few CFOs who dismiss the importance of reputation: 83 per cent agree that a strong corporate reputation conveys a valuation premium (only one actively disagreed). Meanwhile 81 per cent agree that it enables a faster bounce-back from crises (six per cent disagreed), 92 per cent agree that reputation helps employee retention and 90 per cent believe it helps customer acquisition and retention.

What is more, 94 per cent of FDs say communication will become more important for them in future. Eighty-eight per cent say firms have a duty to educate as well as inform their stakeholders and 85 per cent think finance departments will need to become 'more collaborative' than at present.

This is mainly due to the overwhelming view that markets are changing.

Fifty-three per cent see markets as being more concerned with non-financial data than before (only 24 per cent disagreed) and 48 per cent think non-financial audiences have more impact on valuation than five years ago (19 per cent disagreed). Seventy-one per cent agree that non-financial audiences are increasingly active in corporate affairs.

One FD spelt out the reasons for these findings. Peter Woolley, at property group Freeport, says: 'Companies can't afford not to engage with organisations in a position to influence their reputation. If analysts get to hear that you're not liked by a relevant trade body, government agency or interest group, they'll soon want to know why.'

For City PROs the data stands to reason in the current climate. Hudson Sandler CEO Alistair Mackinnon-Musson points to recent media debates about everything from closing final salary pension schemes through to child labour, and animal welfare, all of which have impacted on valuations. He says that with falling share prices and unhappy investors, it is no surprise reputations are increasingly fragile.

Dr Steve John, director of lobbying firm DLA Upstream, and co-author of New Activism and the Corporate Response, due out next spring, points to these factors and also the bursting of the dotcom bubble, employee activism and terrorism as 'once in a generation' issues that have put increased focus on company reputations.

It is one thing to accept that reputation matters, and another being prepared to take genuine measures to improve it. Mackinnon-Musson says increasingly well-informed and sceptical stakeholders are now sophisticated enough to see through spin and only 'the fundamentals of honesty and transparency' will suffice. The fact that 67 per cent of the FDs surveyed believe dialogue is not enough, and that transparency must be increased, shows a readiness to take such steps.

The bulk of respondents (85 per cent) are in favour of audited codes of conduct. Significantly, a large minority (33 per cent) were in favour of pay limits for executives of public firms - 54 per cent were against.

But in a warning, Dr John adds that trusted techniques of dealing with NGOs via a 'big tent' approach involving CSR programmes may not be enough.

Increasingly, the threat is that posed by fragmented 'small, anonymous networks of activists who do not want to engage but simply want to attack,' he says.

And woe betide FDs who take their eyes off the regulators, he says, now that they have more money than ever, greater powers and a greater enthusiasm to make offenders face a range of criminal consequences.

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