The CEO’s Role in Social Responsibility

Type: Features|January 2015
By jburnette-lemon
8 January 2015
Peter Roche
Peter Roche

What role should CEOs play in weaving sustainability into business practice and communication–and how can communication professionals support them???CW??asked Peter Roche of??London Perret Roche Group to shed some light??on this complex topic. Roche is a founding partner of The London Perret Roche Group (LPR) LLC, an international management consulting and executive coaching firm headquartered in New Jersey. Coaching leaders on designing strategies, structures and cultures to intentionally unleash the creativity, passion and intelligence of the people the enterprises is the focus of his work.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon: In your opinion, what should the CEO’s role be in addressing corporate sustainability and social responsibility issues?

Peter Roche: Starting from the premise that the CEO recognizes that sustainability and social responsibility are essential and legitimate areas of focus for the enterprise, the CEO???s role is multifaceted:

  • Tell the story of what the company is doing at every opportunity, to every audience, about the importance of sustainability for the long term viability of the enterprise and, say why being responsible social citizens is a non-negotiable operating principle.
  • Pepper the story with specifics???the tangible, observable benefits that accrue to each stakeholder group; how differentiation and competitive advantage is strengthened by having sustainability and social responsibility be the context for much of what the organization is committed to.
  • Have sustainability and social responsibility metrics be included in every person???s role, as important elements of their performance.
  • Acknowledge, celebrate and publicize accomplishments in these areas in targeted PR releases and social media messaging to every stakeholder group.

JBL: What are the benefits, from a leader???s perspective, of incorporating sustainability and social responsibility into a company???s operations and communications? Some would say that profit is the primary objective of any company???how does corporate citizenship factor into that idea?

PR: Even those executives who believe that profit is the primary objective of any company will readily admit that building a culture of sustainability is profit positive. The votes are in on the economic value-add. Given the large body of evidence of payoff in sustainability projects, a CEO would be ???leaving money on the table,??? as they say, by ignoring all the competitive upside in adopting a sustainability mind-set in all that they do.

It is easier to see the lack of corporate citizenship, and what that costs a corporation???s reputation and bottom line than it is to see the presence of it and how a corporation profits from being a good corporate citizen.

Many will argue that paying employees below subsistence wages and little to no benefits may be good for the bottom line in the short term. But it is much harder to make the case that such an enterprise is a good corporate citizen or that their practices are sustainable. Sustainability is an ???in perpetuity??? mind-set, not a short-term gain mind-set.

JBL: Do you see a rise in individual company leaders advocating for social or environmental causes? What are the effects of this practice?

PR: There are growing numbers of companies for whom doing well financially and doing good socially are not either/or commitments. Companies that not only advocate for social and environmental causes but also build into their operating plans, projects and practices that are a real world expression of their commitments. For many companies their ???causes??? are skillfully woven into the mission of the organization. Unilever is one example. It is this holistic approach that allows such companies able to include an unwaveringly loyal following among their assets.

We are seeing a growing number of food retailers, for example, that will only buy from farmers who practice organic/sustainable farming. We are seeing the formation of organizations like Conscious, whose members are committed to running their business so that the interests of all stakeholders are served: society at large, customers, employees, suppliers, partners and shareholders.

The book Firms of Endearment by Raj Sisodia highlights that in a 15-year longitudinal study, corporations that operated on a model to benefit all stakeholders vs. a maximize-return-to-shareholder model outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 10 times.

JBL: Social and environmental responsibility issues are deeply complex and often politically fraught. What advice would you give PR and other communication professionals who are coaching leaders on talking about these topics?

PR: At a macro level, I would agree that social and environmental responsibility issues are deeply complex and often politically fraught. And yet at another level these issues are simple, obvious, and, when addressed, of immediate benefit to a business and/or community. We may think and debate at a macro level but we mostly live and work at a local and much more accessible level???that???s where real and sustainable change happens.

My first advice would be get to know the ???choir,??? those already in action, who see the social and economic benefits of sustainability, who are already singing off the same song sheet. These are the leaders who already get that their enterprise has wide-ranging responsibilities beyond just maximizing returns to stakeholders. They get the value and importance of a sustainability mind-set. They also get that integral to a sustainability mind-set, maybe even a sub-element, is social responsibility; they are soul mates.

I would trumpet who they are, their commitments and accomplishments, by every means known to PR and communication professionals, so that an undeniable and irreversible perception shift is accomplished.

I would only put ???passionistas??? on this assignment, people whose personal commitment to transforming the context for business in society, and who see sustainability not as a ???nice to have??? add-on, but an essential for our continued existence. I would charge them with seeking out the already enrolled, give them a voice, and let them know they are part of a community of shared interests and commitments.

I would encourage them to do all they can, where they are, with the connections and resources they???ve got, reminding themselves that unlike any point in our history, we are in a connected world and they have the skills and training to tell a story and deliver a message. So, go to work.

jburnette-lemon Jessica Burnette-Lemon is the senior content manager for IABC.

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