When we look back, a decade from now, the solidifying of stakeholder capitalism’s primacy as an orientation for business – and the increased importance of the role of communications in navigating this new model – will trace back to the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of translating corporate value through a higher-level purpose was gaining a foothold among the C-suite prior to this crisis. But a growing systemic mindset shift has accelerated it amid a broad-scale reevaluation of what is important at every level of society, along with rising expectations of corporate leadership and business writ large.
Stakeholder capitalism not only acknowledges, but also embraces, the need for business to deliver more than profits. Indeed, the enterprise’s operations and behavior should now fully address changing expectations beyond shareholders alone.
The job of managing an increasingly diverse stakeholder audience has long lived within the corporate communications function. It’s here where we see the intersection of business operations and strategy, an understanding of the context shaping stakeholders’ views, and, finally, a command of the tone and voice in which the company speaks – all vitally component parts of effective stakeholder engagement.
In the world as we now know it – where the pandemic continues to evolve in a non-linear way, eluding predictions of what’s next and upending personal lives, communities and, indeed, entire societies – navigating the increasingly complex space of shifting stakeholder needs and expectations has never been more difficult – nor more crucial. It is especially so as we start to consider what it will take to move people forward – be it back to work or school, back to purchase or back to reengaging in society at large.
For business to succeed in moving stakeholders along on this journey to our “next normal” – whatever that may be – corporate communicators must be at the table, engaged in strategy and decision making at every step. Communications leaders must lead in directing the conversation with questions that facilitate leadership decisions and bring clarity to the implications of action and, just as important, of inaction. In a stakeholder capital world, where brands are measured by how they show up during this crisis, those actions and inactions are the currency of reputation.
With stakeholder capitalism as a central frame, there are three fundamental sets of questions business communicators must ensure their leadership teams examine as new strategies and related operational decisions are made:
Business resiliency: A state of persistent uncertainty requires organizations find new ways to evolve and adapt their business models to remain relevant and continue to provide value beyond profits. Macro questions to consider include:
Employee engagement: Employees have shown incredible resiliency, enduring extraordinary and ongoing change. Their continued engagement and commitment are critical to meeting the future needs and demands of the business. However, their expectations have changed over these past four months. Developing programs to engage, motivate, reassure and rebuild an organization’s workforce must be a top priority. Key questions to consider are:
Broader community relations: Beyond employees, an organization’s broader stakeholder community – customers, investors, partners, regulators and more – are becoming more plentiful and more engaged. They will be looking for understanding and recognition of how their interests and concerns have been addressed and will seek active and ongoing engagement. Key questions to consider are:
Stakeholder capitalism requires purposeful engagement in support of evolving strategy and operations. The counsel and expertise of communications leaders as we move toward the “next normal” has never been more central or essential. Whether back to a physically changed place of work or commerce, a new way of viewing matters of public safety and economic security, or just simply moving people forward, the interests of all stakeholders must be taken into account. COVID-19 has made sure of that.