Platform: Business must show it is taking on a social role - Firms need to make the link between corporate community initiatives and managing its relations with new Labour, says Colin Byrne

Companies are increasingly giving community relations and public affairs a higher priority. But many are failing to communciate this fact internally and externally, and are therefore not reaping the benefit in reputation that they might. This despite the clear emphasis Tony Blair has laid on the social role of business in tackling some of the great social challenges Britain faces.

Companies are increasingly giving community relations and public

affairs a higher priority. But many are failing to communciate this fact

internally and externally, and are therefore not reaping the benefit in

reputation that they might. This despite the clear emphasis Tony Blair

has laid on the social role of business in tackling some of the great

social challenges Britain faces.



When I left my job as chief press officer of the Labour Party in 1991

after five years to take up a post with a corporate citizenship NGO, The

Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, former colleagues were

surprised.



Surely they were worlds apart?



Ironically, in the policy review that followed the 1992 election defeat,

senior Labour politicians started to take a close interest in the

corporate-community partnerships and volunteer schemes being promoted by

non-profits such as the Princes Trust Volunteers.



It should be no surprise that today the Government actively promotes

Corporate Community Involvement (CCI). New Labour believes business

should be free to flourish in a competitive market, but should recognise

it has a responsibility to put something back into the community. But

while the Government of 1997 may be more pro-business than before, MORI

research shows that Labour MPs are much more sceptical of how seriously

business takes its social responsibilities than their Conservative

counterparts.



This call to business was reinforced in Tony Blair’s recent speech to

the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. He said that:

’Government cannot achieve its aims without the energy and commitment of

others - voluntary organisations, business and, crucially, the wider

public.’ The Government today is increasingly looking to business to

help with schools, to raise money for books and computers, to involve

themselves with local anti-crime initiatives and to release staff as

’millennium volunteers’.



Ministers and voters share a view of the social issues which matter and

on which business can make a valuable contribution. Education and

training, employment, health and welfare, environment and sustainable

development and crime come high on their mutual list of priorities.



Progressive companies now recognise that they have to stop talking about

’charitable giving’ and start to become actively involved in the

community.



But many fail to make the connection internally between Government and

community relations, citing them under different managers in different

departments. Others however, like Lever Brothers and DHL, have brought

the two functions closely together, accurately reflecting the fact that

politicians are a keen audience for CCI activity that makes a real

difference.



Tesco’s Computers for Schools programme is another good example of

making the link between community and Government relations.



Business-friendly New Labour likes to be seen in the company of

forward-thinking business leaders who ’get things done’ and ministers

often use case studies to show their initiatives are working. But the

onus is on companies to let politicians know what is going on, both at a

local and national level, of relevance and interest to them. In some

cases, ministers and MPs will want to get actively involved.



CCI is not a shortcut to political favours. But it is a serious feature

in the social transaction and the ’Third Way’ the Government is keen to

foster. More companies need to display the sort of ’joined up thinking’

New Labour, leading NGOs and private sector innovators are already

operating to.



Colin Byrne is chief executive of Shandwick Public Affairs.



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