Once upon a time there was Corporate Social Responsibility. In all shapes and sizes: company welfare, attention to the environment, support for local communities, projects with the no-profit world.Today, events in the USA and elsewhere reflect a significant advance in the quality of relations between business and society. Indeed, we could be witnessing the birth of a new and unwieldy political party: major corporations and their leaders.
It is true that many companies still find it difficult not only to apply Corporate Social Responsibility but also to understand its true significance, and that many others use CSR purely as an image-building shortcut. Yet an extraordinary expansion of corporate activities towards areas unconnected with finance and profit-making logics is undeniable. This shift has three core pillars:
1. Societal evolution at a time when civil rights are forcefully establishing a place in public and political debate;
2. Ever closer links between market globalisation and the elimination of intermediaries in communication processes;
3. The rise of a new generation of entrepreneurs, who seem to be far more aware of the direct and mutually beneficial relationship between social wellbeing and economic growth.
Countless examples confirm this trend, but the last few weeks have seen some astonishing structural developments.
Look at this simple tweet from Marc Benioff, the “head” of Salesforce:
Here, the CEO of a large organisation is using the social media to ask people to express a view on whether to remain or divest from the State of Georgia if a bill that, in his view, discriminates against gay rights, is approved. More than 6,000 people responded with a simple click, and the result is unequivocal: 80 per cent favour divestment.
Benioff did not stop there, however: aware of the three pillars of the new way of doing business, he sought and obtained a “holy alliance” against the discriminatory legislation: more than 100 company CEOs openly joined the civil rights battle in Georgia. For observers of CSR practices, the quantum shift was obvious: this was not simply a question of taking a political stance, retaliatory action was threatened. Walt Disney, Warner Bros and Marvel warned they might stop shooting movies in Georgia and even the National Football League “alerted” people’s attention to the risk that Atlanta might no longer be able to host the Super Bowl.
The issue launched by Benioff snowballed incessantly for days until the Governor of Georgia (a republican) used his power of veto to block the bill in the state chambers.
After a brief moment of euphoria, the battle switched immediately from Georgia to North Carolina, where a similar bill had already been approved by the State Governor. The CEO party resumed its action to have the law repealed: the hashtag #WeAreNotThis identifies the opposition movement to the anti-LGBT law. Facebook and Google say they no longer want to finance North Carolina State start-ups until the law has been repealed, the National Basketball Association (which organises North America’s most prestigious basketball championship) is threatening to move the 2017 All-Star matches from Charlotte to another city, the CEO of Pepsi has put pen to paper and published an open letter to the North Carolina State Governor, and the Bank of America has taken an open stand against all forms of civil rights discrimination.
Some commentators expect North Carolina to go the same way as Georgia. We shall see; in the meantime, however, we should acknowledge the new political activism among business organisations and their CEOs. Is the phenomenon confined to the USA? Apparently not, to judge from La Molisana’s viral campaign on Italy’s offshore drilling referendum on 17 April.
Many people have a sneaking suspicion that jumping on the bandwagon of a civil rights issue supported by consumers is a tactical move, but their view is not convincing. Perhaps entrepreneurs really have a reached a new understanding that “neutrality” on political decisions pays off less today than in the past, and that although wedding a cause may not make everyone happy, it creates stronger ties with their brand and brand values.