Is social responsibility a virtue?

Tom Brown assesses the challenge of being a socially responsible business while avoiding the charge of virtue signalling

It’s safe to say that 2020 has hardly been the year that anyone would have predicted. Businesses are trying hard to keep pace with social change; however, eagle-eyed audiences are increasingly alert to any knee-jerk, slap-dash messaging around social responsibility, leading to a rise in accusations of the dreaded term… virtue signalling.

Climate of fear

No-one seems safe – from billion-dollar brand, Gymshark, to bastions of the FTSE 100 including Burberry, Persimmon and Severn Trent – all have been tarred with the same negative social media brush in little over three months.

Some might argue that their accusers are more opposed to the ‘virtue’ than the ‘signalling’ itself, but large numbers remain resolute in their criticism. Either way, social responsibility can seem like a tough topic to navigate and leaves many organisations feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place – damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The reality is, this shouldn’t be the case. Whatever barrage of badmouthing businesses might take, the mud doesn’t always stick to the walls.

Trust in your purpose

A lot comes down to confidence; confidence in your approach to ESG – and your purpose. Take Unilever. Earlier in the year, the company suspended its adverts on Facebook over a perceived lack of action against hate speech, while last month, its household-name brand, Ben & Jerry’s, hit the headlines for criticising the UK government’s handling of the migrant crisis.

Both stories drew a mixed reaction – hypocrisy and shrewd cost-cutting on one hand, but a powerful expression of purpose for many others. Businesses that have aligned social responsibility with their fundamental raison d’etre are in a far stronger position to justify – and even champion – their stance on these issues. For a company that has long made sustainable living its ‘why’, or a brand with a history of human rights activism, its actions carry greater credibility.

Not ‘if’ but ‘how’

The fact is, social responsibility is no longer a virtue, it’s a reality for all businesses – a must-have rather than a moral add-on. ESG will likely always be accompanied by scepticism in some form, but with some organisations boasting balance sheets that far outweigh national GDPs, businesses are expected to engage on relevant global issues, not simply stay silent. The challenge then is how businesses communicate social responsibility in a way that resonates with their audience and does not look like they are jumping on a bandwagon. A clearly defined purpose is a good start, but businesses need to make more of their content across different channels to back up and build belief in the message.

Stay tuned….

In the next few weeks Bladonmore is releasing a report examining how some of Europe’s biggest businesses are handling these challenges and exploring the areas where there is room for improvement.

For further detail, or if you are looking for help communicating your social responsibility stories, get in touch.

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Tom Brown

Senior Consultant

Tom produces a variety of strategic content, built around clear narrative and messaging.

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