Are we entering a new world of corporate responsibility?

2 Aug 2018

Susan McPherson at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Susan McPherson unpacks the new kind of corporate responsibility that’s sweeping across businesses.

Corporate responsibility might sound like businesses simply taking responsibility for their own issues, failures and scandals, but that’s no longer the limit of its remit. We have recently seen a trend in companies getting involved with problems beyond their industry and, according to Susan McPherson, this is likely to become more and more common.

McPherson took to the stage at Inspirefest 2018 to talk about “the new world of corporate responsibility”.

“[It] is something I am incredibly passionate about and it’s something that I do every day in terms of helping companies tell their stories,” said McPherson, who founded communications consultancy McPherson Strategies to develop, amplify and share stories of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy.

“When I think of the new world of corporate responsibility, I am thinking about a new moral authority that is existing today, and thankfully so.”

While this particular strand of corporate strategy has had many names over the years – corporate citizenship, sustainability, shared value etc – McPherson whittles it down to “doing the right thing, but as a business; being responsible to your people, to your communities and to the planet that we live on … but done so authentically”.

In the past, a business might have elevated its social profile by donating money for a hospital wing that would forever bear its founder’s name, or funding a cultural programme close to the heart of the person in charge (typically, an elder white man).

Today, McPherson said, corporate responsibility is “an embedded strategy which is core to the business, and delivered and built with purpose in mind”.

McPherson added how we now see companies taking on social impact causes that, in years gone by, they never would have touched on. “Business, interestingly enough, was oftentimes the enemy of activists. And, in many cases today, business is becoming the activist.”

It’s true that, in the past, businesses would not usually take a stand on issues outside their purview, particularly contentious ones such as immigration and – in the US – gun control. But recent examples show how that has changed significantly.

At Inspirefest, McPherson cited many instances of companies stepping outside the realm of their business at hand to stick their heads above the parapet on broad societal issues.

See the companies that responded to US president Donald Trump’s immigration ban by filing a joint court brief and joining protests; the company leaders who advocated for the Paris climate agreement following Trump’s decision to pull out; and those who took action after the Parkland shooting to restrict the sale of guns across the country.

In her work helping companies tell their story, McPherson is seeing their narratives make room for a social conscience. But why is this happening?

“One, it’s good business. Business leaders and corporations do their social research, believe me. Two, there is the realisation that businesses are made up of people, and human-centred is where it’s at. And employees, customers, partners are all asking for it. In fact, many are demanding it.”

Even if you are understandably sceptical or even uncomfortable with the idea of commercial entities driving society’s moral compass, one encouraging factor is that this is not coming from the top down but being spurred from the bottom up.

“Many business leaders will scour polling to find out, are we safe in doing this? Are we going to lose business? But, inevitably, they are realising that it is the best thing they can be doing to enhance their business,” said McPherson. “Increasingly, consumers are asking for it. Consumers want them to take a stand. 78pc of consumers want businesses to be stepping up and fighting for social good and social change.”

In closing, McPherson was unequivocal: “companies can and should do more” in terms of corporate responsibility.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.