Until a few years ago the world of business was nicely divided in two categories – at least when it came to corporate communications.
One category of business, consumer-facing, was subject to the intense scrutiny of consumers, increasingly aware of the impact of what they buy – from an environmental, social or public health point of view. They were the Unilevers, the Coca-Colas or the Tescos of this world.
The other category was for a large part operating in the public eye's blind spot: large engineering, technology or service firms with an exclusive focus on B2B trade and no exposure to consumers and the general public.
While the public was familiar with the brands and companies operating in the first category, they would often ignore even the names of those in the second one.
Now things are changing
Whilst researching the topic of social acceptance for a recently published report, I spoke with a number of communications professionals who see a shift happening.
Regardless of whether they work in a consumer-facing organisation or not, European communicators see the public acceptance of products and services as their second biggest concern regarding licence to operate. They predict business customers, consumers and the general public to gain influence on their organisation's business performance within the next five years.
The reason for this shift? A cocktail of three ingredients:
1. the increasing volume of company information available to anyone,
2. the increasing consciousness of consumer-citizens about the role of business both as a challenge and a solution of environmental and social issues,
3. the increasing power of members of the public expressing opinions on social media.
For B2B companies, traditionally little exposed to the general public, the shift is most visible. "We hear the general public’s voice much more than in the past", said Willem Buitelaar, corporate ccommunications leader EMEA at DuPont. "The public has become much more conscious of environmental issues than they were 10 or 20 years ago. People want to know what is happening in their neighbourhoods and how it may impact their lives."
For B2C companies, the need for business to justify its contribution to wider society has only intensified. The head of corporate affairs in a large FMCG noted: "we are more involved today in helping other organisations assess our social impact than we’ve ever been, and this is becoming an increasing part of what we do as a communications function." Viviane Huybrecht, general manager corporate communication and spokesperson at KBC Group, also identified this as a key trend affecting the communications function: "We certainly see the increasing importance of communicating the purpose of the business. We have to explain 'why we do what we do in the way we do it', and the context in which we operate. This requires positively and proactively engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders to ensure that the organisation earns social acceptance for its operations."
What is the main takeaway?
We are moving towards a Business2Citizen model of corporate communications. All organisations, whether B2B or B2C, need to evidence the value they bring to society. B2B organisations in particular need to start treating the general public as a key stakeholder audience. Explain the role they fulfil in society, their total value contribution to all stakeholders, and reinforce it in day-to-day communications. This increased emphasis on the general public as an audience group will also have an impact on the content and tone of corporate communications. To be expected: more consumer-friendly formats such as short videos, clean websites, and relentless jargon-busting!