The risks and rewards of a corporate social justice culture
Every year, Nielsen takes a measured look at corporate social responsibility initiatives to see if they change the way organizations perform, both in reputation and with increased sales. What they find, year-after-year, is that consumers are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that support their same values.
Similar research has shown the organizations that effectively implement corporate social responsibility programs are more profitable than those that don’t.
It makes sense, then, that most organizations would be on the CSR bandwagon.
Before this year, those programs typically included philanthropy, employee volunteer initiatives, and diversity and inclusion work. Some organizations have historically included social initiatives, but most have shied away from it in years past.
Today’s socially-charged world is requiring organizations to reexamine their CSR playbook. Not only do consumers demand it, employees do, too. It’s evolved from corporate social responsibility to corporate social justice.
What is corporate social justice?
Corporate social justice goes beyond charity and environmental work to focus on the experiences of groups disadvantaged or, worse, harmed by society. According to the Harvard Business Review, corporate social justice is a framework “regulated by the trust between a company and its employees, customers, shareholders, and the broader community it touches, with the goal of explicitly doing good by all of them.”
Despite many organizations making great strides when it comes to CSR, it’s often tacked on to the end of a campaign. It has no legal or social obligation for organizations to actually effect change.
Corporate social justice, on the other hand, requires organizations to deeply integrate how they’re behaving internally to how they behave externally. It’s built to create positive, societal change. It becomes, then, a necessity of how an organization operates, not just a marketing strategy.
Even if you’re not ready to formally embrace corporate social justice as an internal cultural shift, there is something to be said for responding to the conversations happening in and around your company-owned social media pages.
Our recent consumer survey found that conversations about Black Lives Matter, inequality, and discrimination are being shared about a company or brand, right or wrong.
This requires organizations to participate, whether they want to or not. The stakes are much higher today than they were several months ago.
Align the entire enterprise
This kind of evolution may require a cultural shift inside your organization before you can begin any sort of corporate social justice initiative. At the very least, it may require a truly transparent look at how the organization represents the kind of change you’re looking to make.
For instance, when asked to publish internal diversity figures during the #PullUpForChange campaign this past summer, every global beauty brand failed the Black population parity test. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t publish their numbers or take a stance for change. It simply means, in a corporate social justice world, they have more work to do. The fact that they’ve been transparent about where they’re falling down is a great first step.
When you choose a goal, develop a thoughtful and intentional process that asks people from every internal department, external stakeholders, and influencers and brand ambassadors to participate. The goal of this exercise is to figure out which issues intersect with the organization's mission and how it can affect societal change.
Everyone must understand what everyone else is doing. If communications or marketing is launching a new campaign, corporate security must be aware of it—and be ready for the risks that could be associated. If customer service hears complaints and rumbles of conversations, particularly as they relate to societal issues, the community team and marketing must be aware—and be prepared for the risks that could be associated.
To maintain this level of internal awareness, all activities and incidents occurring in response to them should be communicated to the entire organization in real-time, 24/7.
Engage stakeholders and work with influencers
If you decide the process should be determined by internal audiences only—or if you’ll include significant external audiences, such as influencers or ambassadors, meet consistently with them to discuss what is happening, where you might take a stance, and how it could affect different groups inside and outside the organization.
If you do include external audiences, keep in mind they have their own brands. Their actions and conversations reflect back on yours—and vice versa. As you work together on the organization’s corporate social justice framework, do a deep-dive on their public social media footprint so you can determine if there is any conflict involved between their personal brands and yours.
This work is challenging—and highly charged. If done well, though, you can empower different voices and represent many different perspectives, while making a difference.
Not everyone will support the program
Gone are the days of attracting customers from every walk of life. Corporate social justice is not about making people feel good or allowing everyone to be heard. As a result, it will make some people very unhappy—and they will be very vocal about it.
If the stand you take is authentically and morally related to the mission and purpose of the organization—even if there is still work to do on some of the issues you’re working to eradicate—consumers will stand behind you and remain loyal.
At the same time, there is risk involved. There are instigators who could create an incident that is noisy at best, and disruptive at worst. These types of risks should not prevent you from taking a stance, but you should know, at all times, what’s happening with these instigators—so you can monitor the risks and stay ahead of the curve.
Actively observe the response
The biggest consideration as you plan a corporate social justice program is to remain focused on your mission and core values. Taking a stance is as much about remaining consistent in your actions as a company, but remaining vigilant regarding the response to those actions.
While you do that, understand you will incur risk. Unfortunately, there are instigators out there who are waiting to do harm to your reputation. Have the ability to alert the entire organization, 24/7/365, if there are issues emerging—or if something could emerge. Observe external stakeholders, brand ambassadors, and influencers to understand where your brand is aligned, or misaligned, with theirs.
Employees, consumers, even the organization's biggest critics are all listening, watching, and responding. Not everyone will like what you’re doing and not everyone will be kind about it. The instigators are ready, at all times of the day and night.
Organizations that have considered the enterprise-wide implications, remained steadfast in their commitment, and built external trust with their consumers will be rewarded. By understanding the risks involved, you can focus your energy on making a positive difference.
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