Any company worth its salt knows that ethics are the latest consumer
‘want’ and BT is no exception. It is now communicating its caring face
by committing itself to a social audit
When chirpy cockney Bob Hoskins - or his stand-in Rory McGrath - tells
us ‘It’s Good to Talk’ we lend him our ears. Following BT’s ad campaign,
the average person spends 77 seconds a day longer on the phone. And now
it seems BT is after our hearts and minds as well.
Last week BT emerged as the first mainstream UK business to commit
itself to a social audit, which the company claims will give an
independent assessment of how it treats staff, customers and other
‘stakeholder’ groups. How should we receive such news? Is it a genuine
attempt to behave more responsibly or merely a cynical attempt by a
near-monopoly to jump on the ‘ethical’ bandwagon?
Interestingly BT chairman Sir Iain Vallance admitted that the rationale
was ‘not from altruistic motives’ but that it makes ‘sound business
sense’ to improve its reputation in the tough telecoms market.
Director of corporate relations Ian Ash says regular BT customer
research stimulated the move: ‘Previously customers were mainly
concerned with price and delivery, but over the past five years there
has been growing concern about ethics.’ He also says a key factor was
the ‘stakeholder’ theory expounded by the book Tomorrow’s Company.
Could BT really be the first large company to follow the example of The
Body Shop and the Co-Op in making ethics a central business tenet?
Roger Cowe, business journalist on the Guardian with a special interest
in ethical and social issues, believes the initiative is more than just
window dressing. ‘It’s the culmination of a process that goes back to
privatisation, looking at reputation and particularly customer service.
This is a formalisation of Vallance’s argument that in a commodity
business the only way to improve sales is by reputation,’ he says.
He adds: ‘One is right to be cynical but the proof of the pudding is an
independent report and this is what BT’s offering. Other companies are
likely to follow suit.’
There is certainly evidence that BT has undergone a significant
transformation in becoming more customer-facing. A decade ago, after
privatisation, it was associated with broken telephone boxes and poor
service. But in November this year BT took home the Grand Prix at the
IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards for its ‘Good to Talk’ campaign.
And last week emerged as the UK’s strongest brand in Marketing’s brand
As for community relations, Ash says BT ‘puts back’ pounds 50 million
through Business in the Community, as well as charity projects including
Childline and the Samaritans.
He also refers to its ‘good shape’ on environment issues: ‘For the past
two years our environmental report has been audited externally. We’ve
found this empowering as people award it more attention and credibility.
This is one of the reasons we’re now considering extending this work to
broader social responsibility.’
Sally Costerton, managing director of the Abacus agency, is more
sceptical: ‘I’m right behind them in principle. A good reputation is a
strong asset, but what does it actually do for me, the consumer?’
Costerton believes Sir Iain Vallance’s statements are fine for a
sophisticated marketing audience but the relationship with customers is
more basic: ‘He may be going too far in admitting there is no sense of
altruism. BT still has the problem of consumers asking what happens to
its huge profits as a near-monopoly.’
Indeed one could ask why a company with 90 per cent of domestic users
connected to its services even need worry about its reputation. Has the
customer any real choice?
But Ash prefers the term market leader to monopoly: ‘Two thirds of
people now have alternatives,’ he says, ‘And even if we aren’t losing
market share, the regulator will ensure we do, so we need to grow the
market in new areas.’
But wouldn’t the proposed merger with MCI strengthen its position
further? ‘If we’re going into new markets, our reputation becomes even
more important and our set of values needs to be right from the long
term point of view,’ Ash replies.
He says it is early days and the extent of the work means an audited
social statement is unlikely to be produced until at least 1998.
Meanwhile BT will concentrate on existing policies, involving the whole
company and with ‘more focus’.
Adrian Hodges, head of corporate communications at The Body Shop
declined to comment on BT specifically but fails to agree with the
implications behind Sir Iain Vallance’s statement: that altruism, and
success through reputation, are mutually exclusive. Hodges says: ‘It’s
exciting that more and more businesses are undertaking social and
ethical audits, but we see them as an intrinsic part of running our
business well, not as a marketing policy.’ He adds: ‘It needs willpower
and dedication to follow through the findings of the audit.’
The PR industry may welcome the social audit as an admirable and
inspired move by the telecoms giant, but can BT now put its money where
its mouthpiece is?
Ringing the changes for BT’s PR
1984 Reorganises following privatisation
1991 Spends a reported pounds 50 million on a new corporate identity
1992 Launches Putting Customers on the Agenda - a book about its face-to
face customer communication strategy
1993 Group managing director, Michael Hepher affirms strategic
commitment to public relations at board level in PR Week
1994 Appoints Burson-Marsteller to back its ‘It’s good to talk’ campaign
1995 Lobbying to free up telecoms market throughout EU finally pays off
1996 Announces total ethical audit