Communicators over the last year have been whipsawed by a combination of falling trust in organizations together with rising expectations that organizations, including for-profit corporations, do the right thing. For instance, the Meaningful Brands study by Red Havas found 84% of people thought companies should communicate honestly about their commitments and promises, but only 38% felt companies were doing that.

Some distrust is undeserved, according to Red Havas CEO James Wright. He pointed at how many companies have communicated more accurately, consistently and effectively on health issues such as the importance of masking, than not-for-profit entities including, in some cases, government.  “Corporate America really stood up in the last nine to 12 months,” Wright says. “Pretty much all the big businesses were saying what we needed to do.”

Advocating commonsense health practices during a deadly pandemic is one thing. But taking a meaningful stance also means better business performance. That’s according to the Red Havas study, which found that the most meaningful brands significantly outpaced the least meaningful brands on key performance indicators including overall impression, purchase intent, repurchase intent, advocacy and willingness to pay premium price.

Trust isn’t eroding everywhere. Ruth Harper, vice president of global strategic communications for ManpowerGroup, points out trust in managers and employers is at record highs, according to recent studies. “And increasingly companies are responding – they need to position their brand, attract and retain the best talent and the people that reflect their own values,” Harper says.

They’ve nuanced their messages and become human brands

This understanding trust’s value is not lost on senior communicators. At PayPal, for instance, SVP for corporate affairs Franz Paasche says an appreciation of the value of having purpose and meaning has been baked in since it was a newly public company.

“We worked very hard on defining our mission and our values in a way that really brought together our sense of responsibility to make a positive impact for our customers and stakeholders and communities,” Paasche says. “And from the very beginning our mission had, at its core, our commitment to democratize financial services and e-commerce and to serve families, businesses and communities that were not well served by the financial system. By including that in our mission, we set the course for the company.”

At MilliporeSigma, Jeffrey Whitford, head of sustainability and social business innovation and branding, says they look at embracing meaning and purpose as a way to increase opportunity, not just manage risk. “I can think of no instances where we can say this is detrimental to the business,” Whitford says. “We have found significant opportunities for the business.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to satisfy diverse groups of stakeholders, of course. Wright says those who have done it well have distinguished themselves by taking a nuanced approach with messaging that addresses the fact that different audiences have different needs. “There’s been a real move to recognize that you can’t have a cookie cutter approach to dealing with stakeholders,” Wright says. “They’ve nuanced their messages and become human brands.”

The clear reporting about the progress we’ve made gives people trust

For a long time, one obstacle keeping communicators from emphasizing purpose over profit has been a perceived conflict between long-term strategies and short-term quarterly earnings. However, according to Wright, that obstacle is crumbling thanks to one simple understanding. “It’s about recognizing that to be successful in the future, you’ll be judged on what you do today,” Wright says. As a result, he says, “medium- to long-range views are being discussed in a more meaningful way than ever before.”

At PayPal, Paasche says this understanding has been buttressed by the company’s actual experience. “We’ve not found there to be a conflict of any kind in the way in which we communicate day to day and the way in which we state our long-term strategy and long-term communications approach,” he says.

This is not to say communicators can message about financial results in precisely the same way they do about other stakeholder interests. “A balance needs to be struck,” Wright says. “And a lot of our clients have done a good job of that.”

At MilliporeSigma, the balance involves putting a lot of weight on transparency and data. “This isn’t just spin,” Whitford says. “You have to back it up with results and outcomes and impacts to gain people’s trust and for them to see that something is happening.”

As an example, Whitford points to a packaging program focused on sustainability. “We announced that in 2019 — and said that by 2022, these are the things we’re going to accomplish,” he says. “Each year, we report on our progress.”

One goal of that program is to have MilliporeSigma’s fiber supply chain certified as not contributing to deforestation. It reports progress annually. “Year one we were at 60%. This year we’ve going to report 70%, so we’ve made progress but there is a way to go,” Whitford says. “The clear reporting about the progress we’ve made, gives people trust.”

For Harper, the organization’s commitments are only as convincing as the numbers that show how it is doing. “At ManpowerGroup, we are committed to being part of the solution,” she says. “We are setting ambitious goals around climate, diversity and inclusion because we know what is measured matters.”

The government may be hamstrung for some months

While in some ways the beginning of 2021 is a little-changed extension of the end of 2020, when it comes to partisan control of the U.S. government, the difference is stark. It’s only natural, therefore, that communicators entertain speculation about whether the messaging around stakeholder capitalism will be different under President Biden. Not everyone thinks it will.

“The simple answer is, ‘no,' ” says MilliporeSigma's Whitford. “We have been consistent in our communication and we’ve taken the viewpoint that regardless of what’s happening from a political standpoint, we’ve made a commitment and this is something we have in our values."

Wright, however, suggests that too much uncertainty remains to be complacent or static. “Business has to take a very pragmatic approach, be agile, be scenario planning for how different things might play out,” he says. “Also recognize the government may be hamstrung for some months, before any clarity comes about how this administration is going to approach the tax issue.”

Many companies...stepped up in new ways to help customers in new ways to navigate the pandemic

The administrations have changed, but the pandemic is still with us. And although Covid-19 unquestionably has wrought profound human destruction, one of its legacies may, paradoxically, be a benefit in the form of greater appreciation of the value that stakeholder capitalism has.

“I think that the pandemic brought into broader relief some of these really systemic problems in our economy and communities with respect to racism, economic opportunities and the need to enable the empowerment of minority-owned and women-owned business,” Paasche says. These problems existed before the pandemic hit, but it brought into full view some of the devastating challenges that some communities and sectors of our economy faced, he added.

Effectively addressing the issues illuminated by the pandemic can be an opportunity to build better relations with stakeholders, in Paasche’s view. “Many companies, including PayPal, stepped up in new ways to help customers in new ways to navigate the pandemic, and the connecting between companies and customers became closer,” he says. “I think that will have an important effect going forward in terms of the closeness of the engagements between companies and their customers and employees and also their regulators.”

Yet another effect of the pandemic is awareness of new applications for owned channels for building engagement around stakeholder issues. “Generally, the trend in the PR world is toward owned channels,” Wright notes, “and brands recognizing that they are now media themselves has accelerated.”

What was new about the pandemic, Wright says, is that brands realized owned channels were particularly effective ways to help their communities while establishing positions as caring and public minded. This was particularly evident when it came to public. “Basic health, social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks –a lot of that was pushed out through their owned channels,” Wright says.


This has the potential to unlock a new approach to capitalism

A year ago, the idea that hand washing related to stakeholder capitalism would have seemed fanciful if not farcical. Is it possible to say today what the stakeholder capitalism themes of corporate messaging will be this year and beyond?

“We expect to see a new hierarchy of individual needs long after Covid-19 is behind us,” says ManPower's Harper. “After health concerns for themselves and their family, workers are most worried about returning to an old way of working and losing the flexibility they have gained.” Harper says this tells organizations to prioritize health, wellbeing, skills development and flexibility if they want to attract and retain the best talent.

Covid-related matters will surely continue to dominate for a time, Wright observes. Diversity, equity and inclusion are also enduring themes for corporations embracing purpose, he says, along with generally addressing corporate responsibility. “Tackling the pandemic, being focused on DE&I and taking a bigger role in society has accelerated in the last 12 months, and that’s got to stay beyond 2020,” he says.

There are lots of purposes, missions, causes and challenges corporations can choose to embody. Off the cuff, Paasche cites economic inequality, climate change, systemic racism, closing the racial wealth gap and supporting small businesses impacted by the pandemic. “I think companies will continue to take those positions and work to fulfill their commitments,” he says.

MilliporeSigma's Whitford suggests there may be more to it than many realize. In his view, communicators working to fulfill commitments to stakeholder capitalism and purpose may be doing more than helping their brands succeed. “This has the potential to unlock a new approach to capitalism,” he says.

A goal that lofty may seem daunting. But Wright says, at bottom, it’s not overly complicated.

“It’s all about authenticity,” Wright says. “Hold true to your values. If you have values and a character of your organization that you want to portray, you have to live and breathe it. If you don’t, you’re going to get held accountable for it.”