This Time It’s Personal: The New Challenge of Values-Driven Accountability for Organizations

July 12, 2018


It’s surprising how quickly we forget the stunningly dramatic and painful events of the past 12 months. A quiet week or two makes it seem like the relationship between the public and the brands they care about has gone back to the way it used to be. But don’t count on it. There is a new standard of public reaction to unspeakable tragedies, conflicts over freedom of expression, and political ruptures. This new normal is an instant-on, supercharged demand for reaction from companies, brands and institutions across the U.S. and around the world.

We are in a new era of values-driven accountability for all organizations. The transition from past expectations is volatile and unpredictable. In response to crises and threats, companies and brands are discovering that their customers, employees, investors and policymakers expect them to immediately speak, act or advocate on complex issues that go far beyond their traditional role in the public dialogue. Each new situation becomes a fresh test of character that can leave a lasting impression on the reputation of brands and organizations, and relationships that they care about most.

Organizations that avoid taking a stand risk losing credibility and revenue in their relationships. Those who act too slowly, choose the wrong moment to evade difficult public discussions, or avoid scrutiny of their relationships and policies, will risk disappointing the people who are most critical to their business success. This is a challenge for those with responsibility for business outcomes. The alternative can be worse. An organization that becomes known for compromising on its values to preserve its economic outcomes will disappoint its core consumers and put those same business outcomes at greater risk.

So what’s an organization to do? There are several steps that can be taken to quickly adjust, make these choices and create opportunities in the new social and political environment:

  • Understand your values. Every organization should confirm and clarify its values system and consider how those values harmonize or conflict with its business objectives. That means going beyond the words of a corporate values statement, and realizing that CSR programs and declarations of purpose are important, but not sufficient to define a corporation’s values.
  • Mind the pulse of your stakeholders. Organizations need to develop a more powerful and comprehensive social-issues intelligence system, connecting data from customer service call centers, sales conversations and employee channels with traditional social and media monitoring, and opinion polling. This helps to create one single, ongoing view of values harmony across constituents, plus immediate indicators of emerging concerns or demands for action from critical audiences. A better intelligence system will make it possible for the organization to quickly determine how urgent or difficult it will be to respond to conflicting calls for corporate advocacy.
  • Expand your monitoring. Organizations also need to supercharge their full-time monitoring to feed this system, going beyond the usual key words and looking for notice of events and analysis of issues that will intersect with their values and those of their constituents.

With this approach, companies, brands and institutions can make clear and quick choices to speak – or not – and act in synch with the values and expectations of their brand fans, top employees and others, inside or outside the organization. To support those decisions, some management processes also need to evolve:

  • Establish a culture team. Every organization should start an internal group focused on issues, values and policy and give it responsibility for reinforcing and challenging the organization’s character and culture. That group should meet regularly to identify and review issues that intersect with the organizations deepest values. Functional areas to include are communications and public affairs, legal and regulatory, government relations, investor relations, human resources, customer relations and customer service, and security.
  • Acknowledge your values risk. The company’s existing senior management group should add values risks to its risk management profile or issues tracking data that they regularly review at senior executive management meetings.
  • Update your crisis plan. Existing risk management, ethics and crisis response processes should be expanded to address values and social issue risks to the organization. This expansion should include a systematic evaluation of all business relationships based on values compatibility.
  • Rehearse your response. All organizations should add scenarios that represent social issues conflicts, values-system failures, and related challenges to their simulation-based training exercises.

The final ingredient is speed. Ultimately, every organization needs to develop the capacity, based on these systems, to speak and act quickly and consistently after a dramatic event or new threat. The speed with which an organization responds is an indication of its authenticity in its relationships with customers, employees, investors and others. Issues or events that cross borders and cultures are increasingly frequent and present a more complex challenge. In these cases, a fast response is even more important to avoid perceptions of indifference.

A strong, values-based public position may lead some customers, employees, business partners and investors to move closer to or further away from the organization. No values-based position will be universally safe and acceptable. The choice of one position versus another may impact revenue and earnings, even jobs. But companies, brands and institutions with strong, clearly articulated values and a deep connection to the most valuable constituents will ultimately be able to stand stronger in a reactive, fragmented world.