The rise of social activism: a new reality for corporate Australia

Published on
August 9, 2021

There is no better time to look at the radical transformation of business that has occurred domestically and globally on the back of a surge in social justice and equity movements.

The acceleration of social activism has significantly impacted the way in which companies put their ESG principles into practice and also, how they communicate these practices with their stakeholders, including shareholders.

Companies are not only competing for the consumer dollar, but for the investor dollar too and this audience is among an ever-growing cohort holding businesses to a higher moral and ethical standard, a standard that places corporate accountability side-by-side with — sometimes even higher than — government responsibility in driving the social, political, economic and public health agenda.

Having assembled a high-quality panel of business and communication leaders — including from Australia and the US — for a timely webinar, it became apparent that the ability of businesses to embrace and settle in to the new reality can have a very real and direct impact on the bottom line.

And who better to discuss this in detail than a group of distinguished corporate professionals representing some of the world’s leading multinationals, offering a truly global view on the rise of social activism in the corporate arena:

  • Bia Assevero — Co-founder and Vice President of True MOSAIC, Fleishman Hillard New York
  • Tony Bellas — Chairman, Novonix Limited and intelliHR
  • Debbie Smith — Brisbane Managing Partner, National Mining Leader, PwC Australia
  • Bruce Ruddy — Specialist Advisor, Investor Relations, Rowland.

While it was agreed some companies and brands have excelled at inserting their voice in timely and topical conversations, others have struggled to make decisions about what issues to “own” and there are some lessons all of corporate Australia can learn:

Discrepancies and hypocrisies don’t fly anymore. As businesses respond to different forms of social activism, we’re seeing a rise in issues relating to these responses. When companies jump on a bandwagon, they run the risk of being called out by the public, particularly when a response doesn’t align with the values, internal attitudes and day-to-day operations of the core business. This can have a flow-on effect, breeding mistrust and putting companies at risk of “cancel culture” as consumers and investors take their investment elsewhere.

ESG is no longer a tick-box process for businesses. Investors are no longer looking solely at the financial performance of a company, but also at the management of ESG issues. There is an opportunity for businesses to differentiate themselves and attract growth through their engagement with stakeholders, and instilling ESG and good governance throughout the organisation.

Noise for the sake of noise can be harmful. The rise of new social, political and environment issues comes with increased pressure on business to respond and act as advocates. However, companies need to accept that not every fight is the right fight. Businesses need to ask themselves — what are our values, purpose and principles? Are we committed to being an advocate for the long haul? Are we willing to shift things internally within the business? Are we adding value or creating noise? Being disingenuous and succumbing to the pressure to respond can sometimes be more harmful than taking a step back and understanding your core values.

Own your own issues. The acceleration of social activism has increased the knowledge and power of NGOs and lobbyists who are unafraid to call out companies for not acknowledging their own social issues. To be successful in maintaining a positive image while owning the issue, companies need to remain authentic, while aligning to their values and purpose.

Corporate Affairs Webinar – What people want from modern business in a new era of activism and advocacy from Rowland. on Vimeo.

Short on time? We’ve summarised more from the discussion here:

Bia Assevero — Co-founder and Vice President of True MOSAIC, Fleishman Hillard New York

“Somebody, somewhere will be mad no matter what you decide to do. So, your new question is not ‘how do I avoid being criticised?’, but ‘what do I think is worth being criticised for?’. That really becomes about values and purpose, and aligning everything to that. We get asked for decision trees all the time, but you can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables because if you don’t know who you are and what your values are, then a decision tree is not going to help you.”

Tony Bellas — Chairman, Novonix Limited and intelliHR

“You can’t take a timid approach to these issues. You’ve got to be serious about it and you’ve got to be courageous and bold. Governments are reluctant to too much change because people typically are adverse to change, so they are timid. They need to be pushed, but are being pushed a lot more quickly these days because we do have the democratisation of the voice through social media and a recognition by corporates that they have a legitimate place to play in driving issues other than those that relate to financial operations.”

Debbie Smith — Brisbane Managing Partner, National Mining Leader, PwC Australia

“There’s no doubt that there has been this global shift towards a social license to operate versus the legal license to operate. You see so many examples of how this plays out in Australia — you only have to look at not only climate change or net zero, but the pressure that surrounded companies that took advantage of JobKeeper yet were making record profits. Those companies are being held accountable… and it shows how quickly your social licence can be taken from you.”

Bruce Ruddy — Specialist Advisor, Investor Relations, Rowland

“The global research is telling us that fifty per cent of employees believe that CEOs should speak publicly on some of these political and social issues, and furthermore, fifty percent of customers believe that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in some sort of social issue not aligned with their business. This is because companies are seen by stakeholders as having greater reach than politicians or journalists, or even religious leaders.”

Stay tuned for our final Corporate Affairs webinar for 2021 in November where we will discuss the increasing “war for talent”. Until then, watch the other webinars in the series including: