Back in 2006, I started a new job with my current employer, DSM, working as a communications manager for its innovation center.
It was in many ways a dream role: working with fascinating and inspiring people on fledgling innovations in emerging areas like biomedical and personalised nutrition.
My assignment was clear: to position DSM in these new markets and to communicate the benefits of our innovations to prospective customers – manufacturers around the world looking to use our ingredients and technology in their products. It was a classic B2B role, applying communications in a traditional, linear way that many of you will recognise. Looking back on those days, I realise how much the world (and DSM) has changed.
It was very clear what we were creating (various science-based solutions). It was equally clear how we were creating them (through a range of scientific competences). However, the one aspect that was never really addressed was why we were doing all this work? Of course, any commercial company needs to turn a profit, but when it came to tapping into our deeper purpose, the company did not think to guide us too much, and we never really thought to ask.
Fast forward to February this year. Still working for DSM, I found myself visiting our Brazil office. I walked into an environment buzzing with activity and positivity, full of colleagues, many of whom were still at school when I first joined the company.
These talented people were (and still are) much sought after in the marketplace. So why choose to work for DSM? The resounding response I received was that they joined us not because of any particular product or scientific competency, but because they agree with what we stand for. They (like many other colleagues at DSM), have a strong societal agenda. They want to make a difference in the world.
It is a great example of how and why the entire concept of corporate citizenship has evolved, and with it, the role of the communications professional itself.
The values of citizenship
In recent years, it has become clear that governments alone cannot solve the immense challenges facing our planet in everything from fighting hunger to tackling climate change to preserving our precious resources for future generations.
"It has become clear that governments alone cannot solve the immense challenges facing our planet."
The growing influence and impact of companies as active contributors to our society has got many of us thinking more deeply about the role we can all play in standing up for our beliefs, and specifically the ‘why’ that underpins everything we do: our purpose.
Corporate citizenship initiatives may come and go, but the deep-seated values behind it are permanent – which represents a huge opportunity for communicators. Why? Because we now have a far larger and broader role to play in ensuring our organisations live up to their societal commitments; and this in turn means not only communicating on behalf of our organisation but also shaping the agenda within – and increasingly outside – it.
The question is how?
No empowerment on a plate
At DSM our purpose is ‘creating brighter lives for all'. We have been on our purpose journey for some time now (see panel), and while we certainly do not have all the answers, we have learned some valuable lessons along the way. The most important is that purpose needs to be deeply embedded throughout an organisation to really be effective. Here are some more lessons I have learned.
Saying goodbye to the old way of doing things. If we as a communications function want to shape the agenda and drive this transformational process, we need to be involved at the beginning of big organisational conversations, not the end. The days that communications was a linear, one-way process of sending information to a narrow target audience have long gone, which means learning to think bigger and outside the boundaries of our role.
Improving understanding to gain greater influence. As communicators, we can add real value, firstly by understanding how our own organisations - and portfolios - benefit different stakeholder groups. Secondly, we can bring new insights about the various stakeholder groups themselves. What are their core values and what more can we do for them?
Investing in digital insights and social listening. At DSM, this relatively low-cost activity has really helped us achieve this by determining the key influencers and what they are saying. There is a constant hum of conversation going on out there: who better than the professional communicators to tap into this and use it to help our organisation become a better corporate citizen? Furthermore, we’re seeing that communications can be a valuable sounding board in stimulating transparency about what isn’t going so well, even bringing different groups together in the name of our singular or a shared purpose.
Reaching out beyond our function. The siloed way of the past is just that – the past. If we want to influence our colleagues from different functions, I have learned that insight is not enough. We need to nurture relationships and trust.
For example, at DSM our communications team has strong links with both our colleagues in the business and in other functions, such as Sustainability, People and Organization, and Operations and Responsible Care. Together we work on defining not only how we all contribute to our purpose across the wider picture, but also how we can build and reinforce each other’s work.
Tailoring messages. As communicators, we have a real opportunity to be catalysts for change in our organisations, and traditional communication itself is of course still a huge part of this. At DSM, our purpose is based on sustainability, and thus fairly broad.
The key to success, we have discovered, is therefore to tailor and contextualise the way we communicate to appeal to our different stakeholder groups. What’s more, the communications team also needs to act as custodians of content, ensuring that statements are supported with hard facts.
Remembering that purpose is permanent. This is about more than just messaging and campaigns. It is about actions – hence the communicator’s role in helping to embed a wider and deeper purpose that underpins everything the organisation does – from the CEO to the factory floor.
The reality is that any organisation that places purpose at its core, puts a target on its back: as communications professionals our role is increasingly to ensure that our organisation walks the talk.
Which brings me neatly to my own role as DSM’s director purpose, where I am still working on all the points outlined above. Purpose is permanent, but I do not expect (or want) my current role to be. It is still a work in progress, but my hope is that in a couple of years we will have embedded purpose fully into our organisation. That is my purpose.
DSM: our purpose journey
In June 2018, DSM announced its latest strategy update (in which our purpose of ‘creating brighter lives for all’ with our science-based solutions is fully anchored). Our business has been committed to sustainability for more than a decade, during which time we have proved that, financially speaking, it really is possible to do well by doing good.
Now, our commercial strategy and underlying purpose are inseparable – to the point where our business is based around the UN Sustainable Development Goals – supported by a range of concrete commitments, actions and targets. We call this being ‘purpose-led, performance-driven’.
- We created a Brighter Living Agenda as our roadmap for delivering value to all our stakeholders. It is based on three key pillars: 1) improving our own operations; 2) enabling healthier and more sustainable solutions for our customers and end users; and 3) advocating for the society we believe in with a huge range of third parties (NGOs, governments, academia, etc) across our three key domains of Nutrition and Health, Climate and Energy, and Resources and Circularity.
- We communicate about our purpose-led approach based on facts and concrete evidence with an emphasis on action (for example, an estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is left in the ocean each year, accounting for almost 10 per cent of all sea-based plastic waste. To address this critical environmental challenge, DSM is using abandoned fishing nets as the source for Akulon® RePurposed, a recycled polyamide which can be used to create a wide range of new products, such as surfboards).
- Now, we are increasingly tailoring our content for different stakeholders based on personal, company/customer, and wider industry messages. Our purpose remains the same, and at the heart of what we stand for. However, the way we describe how we translate it into business, remains flexible in order to create maximum engagement with any given audience, as reflected and embedded in our regular communications.
After that, who knows? The one thing we do know is that our purpose-led approach is far more than just a campaign with a finite end. It is here to