Communicating On Purpose: How to Generate and Talk About Enduring Social Impact
Not too long ago, I was approached by a major company eager to build its reputation as one of the “good guys.” Their CEO didn’t top noteworthy lists of admired leaders, and few knew of their charitable giving. The problem, they thought, was that they were just too humble.
They were dead wrong — and somewhat right. Here’s what I mean, and what you can learn from their story, no matter how big your business is.
Not as generous as they thought
One reason executives were puzzled by their low rankings is they significantly over-estimated their giving relative to their corporate peers. It’s easy to do.
One study found that people think their neighbors should give about 6.1 percent of their income to charity. That’s telling, since most of us give less than 3 percent ourselves. Companies are seldom much different.
That’s why I recommend holding up a more objective mirror through periodic third-party benchmarking of your corporate citizenship efforts.
Punch above their weight
Seeing the analysis, this company’s executives still weren’t willing to meet average corporate giving levels – let alone give enough to be in the top five, ten or even twenty-five percent of corporate donors.
Yet, they still wanted to be viewed as generous. (Don’t we all?)
One solution is to invest in innovation. Companies that are deeply philanthropic and creative know that a thoughtful strategy can meaningfully advance their cause while also turning heads.
From Avon championing breast cancer (at a time few people said the word “breast”) to Rockport creating an entire new footwear category – walking shoes -- to Western Union supporting migrants and refugees, strategic innovation can help even the heavyweight givers to pack a greater punch.
Lead with the issue
It doesn’t take long to craft a sharp strategy. The greater challenge can be convincing executives that their social purpose program isn’t all about them. It should be about the people they purport to serve.
Talk about yourself and few stakeholders will pay attention; fewer still will stay engaged over the long term. That’s why I recommend companies lead with their social issue, not themselves.
Some PR pros don’t understand this. They insist on making the story about their organization, rather than its employees, partners, or (most importantly) the people its programs serve. Big mistake.
Self-centered “push” communications barely worked in the 1990s. In today’s transparent, relationship-driven world, communicators who put their company before its cause risk seeming tone-deaf, and perhaps even exploitative. If your job is to promote a company, it can be hard to see when you cross that line.
To avoid creating new exposures for your company, ask a trusted third-party to give you an honest assessment of your cause communications. And, once again: lead with the issue, not yourself.
Don’t worry: you won’t fall into obscurity if you’re not constantly tooting your own horn. Why? The best purpose programs are about relevance. They resonate and help you matter to people.
The smartest strategies create natural new allies, attract others to you, compelling them not only to share your story, but to become part of it. For example, REI’s #OptOutside initiative has seen remarkable organic growth, with other companies and even the U.S. government joining the movement.
It helps that REI is a leader in their cause space. If your company doesn’t have deep organic knowledge of its social issue, I recommend forming an advisory council of outside issue experts. The trick is not to use the group as a rubber stamp or photo-op for your CR report.
Listen deeply and forge relationships between your advisors and leaders across your company: public affairs, R&D, communications, HR, marketing, and regional presidents among them. Do this well, and they soon will tell your story with the passion, credibility and reach that few paid influencers have.
Communications as a social impact program
With employees, partners, and other third-party endorsers as your constant advocates, you can do even more. The most enlightened companies don’t treat communications just as a means to publicize their programs. They approach communications as a critical element of the social impact program in and of itself.
Proprietary research, special events, newsletters, social network initiatives, content-driven reports, video and creative all can help raise awareness of your issue – and the leadership role your company plays in advancing the cause.
Often, this doesn’t come naturally. It typically takes three-plus years after a program launches for a company’s internal staff to be fully trained and for the program to get its legs. Even then, the most forward-looking companies continue to invest in ongoing innovation.
Does the company I mentioned understand all this now? I hope so. The real test isn’t what happens the day your purpose is unveiled to your employees or when you win the big award. It’s what happens next month, next year and each year after that. Enduring reputations are built on the kind of authenticity that drives enduring impact. Of course, a dose of true humility never hurts.