Public relations, literally, is about managing an organisation’s relationships with its public; sharing positive stories; communicating messages; creating conversations – words, words, and lots more words. But words are not enough.
In her recent article in The Financial Times, Time’s up on a golden age of corporate greenwashing, Business Columnist Pilita Clark notes: “Too many businesses profess to care about the climate, yet fail to match the scale of their rhetoric with action.”
The disparity between company position and corporate action is often underestimated, but it presents a tangible threat to the authenticity of an organisation’s reputation, and by extension its ability to effectively communicate with its stakeholders.
Especially in such an age as today where stakeholders are far more sceptical of corporate messages, even the most evocative wording is no longer enough to prove that a corporation truly cares about the environment – or equal pay, diversity, pineapple on pizza, or anything else it claims to hold in high regard. Stakeholders now are searching between the lines of the official company statement for supporting evidence within its operations. How far the former deviates from the latter will tell them everything they need to know about an organisation, compromising their faith in the brand.
The impact of a loss of trust in a company among its stakeholders can weave into many areas of business, and examples across the corporate landscape range from the casual to the extreme. The issue does not exist solely around environmental or ethical messages either; sometimes even core business functions can clash with corporate statements.
In September 2018, Richard Branson posted a picture of himself on Twitter running to a meeting, a message meant to communicate the value he places in punctuality – to which the almost unanimous response from the Twitterverse was: “have you seenthe state of your trains?”
At the time, almost one in five Virgin trains were late to their destination by more than 10 minutes, and Virgin Trains itself hovered around the bottom five operators for service punctuality. The official response from Virgin lacked enthusiasm at best; when asked for comment, Virgin Trains diverted queries to Virgin Global, and Virgin Global shared a half-hearted summary of compensation packages.
In this the commercial impact appears negligible, other than some embarrassment. In other cases, the impact of criticism can run deeper.
The fashion industry – much like the marine and energy sector – is facing scrutiny from regulators and environmental groups to reduce its negative impact on the climate, as well as improving its less-than-glowing record of ethical working practices.
Retailer H&M faced criticism over the launch of its widely marketed World Recycling Week campaign in 2016, during which it pledged to collect 1,000 tonnes of used clothes. Critics questioned the ability of the campaign to have any meaningful impact on the over-production of cheap garments, which is a huge contributor the industry’s environmental impact – a practice H&M itself is guilty of. Moreover, the campaign was launched around the same time as the Fashion Revolution campaign, an ethical shopping movement which also commemorated the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 garment-factory workers lost their lives.
Unfairly or not, the campaign was perceived as an empty gesture which distracted the consumer gaze from the unethical operational practices that retailers rely on for profitability. Three years on, H&M in particular continues to face scrutiny from increasingly environmentally and ethically-conscious consumers; a fact which may have contributed towards a considerable drop in sales in 2018.
These missteps by Virgin Trains and H&M certainly had an impact, but not necessarily enough to drive away its core stakeholders – its customers. However sometimes a lack of consistency between message and action can be so severe as to upend public support in its entirety. Which brings us to Oxfam.
The scandal surrounding OxfamGB’s activities in Haiti called into question the trustworthiness of the entire charity. Breaking in The Times in 2018, it was revealed that OxfamGB quietly removed several staff members from its aid programme in Haiti in 2011, including its in-country Director of Operations, following allegations of sexual exploitation.
The opening foreword of Oxfam’s 2011-2012 Annual Report read as follows: “We are outraged by the poverty and injustice in the world. We must challenge unjust policies and practices and respect people’s rights. Together we can achieve a fair world without poverty. With partners and allies, we will act in solidarity with people living in poverty, especially women, to achieve their rights and assert their dignity as full citizens.”
The exploitation of disaster-stricken communities in Haiti could not exist in starker contrast with everything Oxfam claimed to stand for, and the hammer came down on all fronts. Over 7,000 donors cancelled direct debit payments to Oxfam and the charity lost a number of key ambassadors. The International Development Secretary ordered Oxfam to hand over all information from its internal investigation in Haiti under the threat of cutting UK Government funding to the charity. Subsequently the Charity Commission launched an inquiry to explore the full extent of misconduct.
Oxfam has a long and difficult road ahead of it if it hopes to earn back the trust of its stakeholders, as acknowledged in the foreword of its latest annual report; an open apology outlining the charity’s failings and its roadmap towards improving the organisation and, crucially, realigning itself with its values.
The clear takeaway from the case of Oxfam is that your words will do you no good if they are not supported by your actions. The further an organisation strays from its purpose and its values, the further it must climb its way back. If you’re not prepared to practise what you preach, you’ll be climbing for a very long time.
As Warren Buffet famously remarked, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” When stakeholders feel their trust in your brand and in the purpose of your organisation has been misplaced, the road back can be very long.
By Lisa Davison