Summer 2020 put corporate purpose in the spotlight: did companies pass the test?

As business bounces back, who will go beyond their prepared mission statement to face up to the new challenges posed by corporate stakeholders?

Purpose is not a tick-box exercise and the summer has sorted the wheat from the chaff, argues Rob Mindell
Purpose is not a tick-box exercise and the summer has sorted the wheat from the chaff, argues Rob Mindell

Normality returns for many. Back to work after a summer like no other.

Kids back to school, the office reopening, the desk deep cleaned, an abundance of sanitiser, a face mask ready by the front door and, perhaps, a team gathering or business lunch on the horizon.

But how long will it last?

In these many months since lockdown restrictions began, communications professionals have played a central role in helping corporate leaders navigate the most tumultuous times many have ever experienced.

It has been a testing time for business – a test of resilience and a test of purpose.

In our industry, as constructors of corporate reputation, we’ve enjoyed the privilege of helping companies over many years define their identity and set out their corporate purpose.

The summer of 2020 was when those purpose statements were put to their test – balancing economic and commercial decisions with the welfare and wellbeing of the people who power a business.

As the BLM protests brought greater attention to the cause for diversity and inclusion, equally tough challenges faced corporate leaders in whether to stand up for what’s right or shy away from the spotlight.

So why did some fail, despite the best of efforts?

How was it that those among the most developed thought leaders in business, with clearly defined purpose statements and value drivers, faced the most severe backlash?

When high-profile consumer brands including Nike and L’Oréal leaned into the public debate, why did they meet such criticism from their customers, employees and the general public?

The test of this time was not simply whether a mission statement was written and posted on the company website.

It wasn’t a tick-box exercise of whether the statement from the chief executive, the internal memo and the social media posts scored well in message testing with focus groups.

The businesses whose reputations were protected and enhanced in this challenging era were those whose purpose was evident in their deeds, not just their words.

Over the months, as households faced stark choices about their health and their finances, consumers have called for more than empty virtues.

As a global health crisis caused a global economic crisis, governments have asked for businesses to share the burden.

With the wounds of the financial crisis barely healed, investors are demanding that companies play a positive role in their communities.

When society has seemed fractured, employees have demanded their leaders be activists for change – activists, not merely advocates, which requires a track record of putting purpose into action.

The return to work may be short-lived.

Just one positive COVID-19 test in the team, or a cluster outbreak in the town, and we could all be back to Zooming full-time from our living rooms.

But while we are together, collaborating as colleagues and creating impactful campaigns, take a moment to challenge corporate leaders on what action they can take to be the activists of tomorrow.

Rob Mindell is a managing director in the strategic communications practice at FTI Consulting

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