Give props to Page (Arthur W. Page Society) for its just-released report “Stakeholder Capitalism and ESG: A Guide for Communication Leaders.” It’s transparent. “This is meant to be a study guide, not a white paper,” the 58-page vehicle begins.
Just in time for Roe v. Wade and a slew of other socio-political issues vexing C-suites, one of the Guide’s goals is providing chief communication officers (CCOs) background for tackling whether or not a company should take a stand on societal issues.
Its advice on stand-taking includes:
- most companies can’t respond to every issue
- implement a framework for thinking about and choosing your issues
- consider which issues you can influence with constructive change
- think about how you will proceed when opinions of major stakeholders collide
ESG (environmental, social and governance) insights include:
- begin with asking stakeholders, not just investors, about their ESG preferences
- ask your large investors about ESG reporting/disclosure requirements
- establish a cross-functional ESG team
- develop an ESG maturity model (ie, where is the company and where does it want to be?)
- conduct a gap analysis for creation of programming and disclosing
Yet more important than its specific advice, though, the Guide emphasizes that ESG and taking a stand (or not) on social issues are parts of a whole. The whole is a different way of doing business—one that emphasizes creating societal value.
As Page president Roger Bolton told us in an email interview, “CCOs are at the center of helping their organizations build a systematic and authentic corporate commitment to creating societal value.”
Creating societal value
In addition to taking a stand and ESG, the other part of creating societal value for Page is creating value and purpose for all stakeholders through a company’s core businesses.
Page uses the term stakeholder capitalism in the Guide instead of creating societal value.
Apart from how-to’s, advice about measurement and numerous case-study examples, the Guide offers new material. For example, it draws on the work of Page member Jon Iwata, the former IBM SVP now at Yale’s business school. His interviews since 2021 with more than 70 CCOs, board chairs and other leaders about stakeholder capitalism provide useful nuggets.
For example, few interviewees see stakeholder capitalism mainly as a moral issue. Instead, most consider it table stakes as companies battle for talent, customers, investors and partners.
On the other hand, despite stakeholder capitalism’s importance, most of Iwata’s subjects admit their companies are winging it. They lack “a method, process or approach to determine the relevance of issues and opportunities,” the Guide says.
For Page, this is a disastrous approach. Instead, the Guide says successful stakeholder capitalism is a team sport, requiring intentionality and participation from all units in a company. As such, tools, methods and a framework are essential. Iwata’s working on developing these. The Guide presents several of them.
Understand going in that Page views communication in an active sense. CCOs are much more than pen holders or storytellers. As Arthur W. Page said, “Public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it.”
And as Page research has argued previously, chief communicators are well placed for sparking corporate initiatives–they are among the few who work across the entire business enterprise. And getting a company to embrace stakeholder capitalism requires company-wide participation, the Guide argues.
“It requires CCOs to use their full capacities as leaders and influencers, participating in their organizations’ most important business activities, to ensure that the societal value commitments are embraced and implemented through business operations,” it says.
On the other hand, the Guide is realistic. “The CCO likely will not have primary responsibility to lead all three dimensions of this work,” it admits. “More typically, the CCO will work with the CEO and across the C-Suite” in the three areas mentioned above.
Still, the Page CCO must act. “What isn’t in doubt is that if the CCO does not take up this remit, in a company committed to stakeholder capitalism, the CEO and the board will find someone who will,” it says.
A second part of the Guide’s thinking about stakeholder capitalism is the multi-stakeholder approach. It’s based on a two-decade-old Page idea that companies work “best when they engage authentically with all their stakeholders.”
Beyond employees, customers and investors, stakeholders include “partners, suppliers, governments, regulators, communities and civil society.”
All these groups now expect value from companies on “corporate purpose, ESG and societal issues,” Bolton says.
Such value creation has become a board-level and C-suite priority, the Guide argues. Moreover, it requires “discipline…[and] new management systems that span the entire enterprise and ensure that commitments are integrated into the corporate strategy and lead to tangible results.”
Importantly, instead of seeing value creation as yet another box for checking, Page argues pursuing stakeholder capitalism can spur innovation and profits. For example, stakeholder capitalism could result in new products (more on this below).
Again, the Guide draws on Iwata’s findings. His interviewees were asked if serving multiple stakeholders creates corporate deadlock. Instead, most agreed “while trade-offs are sometimes necessary, often the imperative of creating value for multiple stakeholders leads to innovation and new thinking….”
An example of this new thinking is stakeholder-centric design. In brief, instead of centering product design on the consumer or user only, stakeholder-centric design considers multiple stakeholders.
An example is Nike’s Space Hippie, a sneaker line that’s part of the company’s move to zero sustainability push. Not only are the sneakers profitable, they are Nike’s lowest carbon footwear. This is not an accident, but intentional. Its “benefits were simultaneous because the design team set out to capture and address all stakeholder constraints from the start,” the Guide says.
Early on, the Guide sets out a step-by-step approach for approaching stakeholder capitalism. It begins with a key role for the CCO: making the case. “And the starting point should not be just to improve ESG ratings,” it argues.
Instead, the company must answer, how is the world a better place through our success? “In other words, what is our purpose?”
As the CCO makes the case, she should seek internal allies, not just ESG advocates. “[C]hoose people who have authority because they understand the business…Ask yourself: Can this team make sure you establish the right KPIs and execution plans?”
Another good tip when making a case: account for various departments' realities. For example, say procurement has hard price targets. “If they have to take other things into account, such as human rights circularity or energy efficiency, it will not make their lives easier.”
Constraints, not roadblocks
Yet these realities are not roadblocks, but constraints, the Guide says. “You’ve got to establish credibility with the business leadership by understanding their issues and constraints at a sophisticated level, and by being able to sort out essential insights from the noisy cacophony of voices.”
Similarly, the Guide offers encouragement. “[S]peak up, even when you think your colleagues don’t want to hear. It takes guts to bring in the inconvenient truths, but the organization’s success depends upon those insights.”
It adds that speaking up “in a way that will be heard and inspire cooperation” is key. “This is about EQ, interpersonal relationships and winning allies.”
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein