Today’s consumers have a desire for tangible action. They demand accountability, not the appearance of it. They want genuine changes on society’s pressing issues – from climate change and data, to social and racial equity. They want true authenticity.
In Hong Kong, companies are increasingly looking at their ESG (environmental, social, governance) commitments and how they should respond to consumers’ desire for progress on many social and environmental issues.
In terms of climate change for example, CLP recently announced it is engaged in discussions with the Hong Kong government to contribute to a preliminary decarbonisation roadmap in support of the city’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Another example is Hong Kong family-owned apparel and textile company Esquel, which understood the need for a more fundamental shift to address climate change and ensure sustainable growth. In 2012, the company launched ‘Integral’ – a pioneering sustainable manufacturing facility combining modern technologies, quality employment, innovation and environmental sustainability.
For both these businesses, change is happening at a business level and communication about their sustainability initiatives is highly connected to the actions they are taking.
This is in line with the results of FleishmanHillard’s latest five-market Authenticity Gap survey which shows that nearly two thirds of consumers (64%) believe that for a company to be more credible than its competitors, it must talk about its behavior and impact on society and the environment, not just the customer benefits it offers.
But while it is important for companies to take action and be accountable, they also need to consider how having a voice on an issue may resonate with their different stakeholder groups – particularly if they have global operations where the context for an issue may be different in Hong Kong, for example, than it is in Seattle. Companies with global supply chains and work forces need to consider today’s complex trading environment and how an action in one market could be interpreted in another.
There are three central questions organisations should consider before taking a stand:
–Is the issue they wish to take a stand on relevant to their business and what actions are being taken within the business to support the company’s external position? Consumers are very quick to see through companies that are all talk and no action and want tangible evidence of progress and a roadmap for change.
-How could this issue play out in different markets? How will it be interpreted by netizens and governments in both the East and the West? While it is important to have strong principles on ethical and responsible manufacturing, for example, stakeholders in some markets are concerned about companies making decisions based on what they believe are false assumptions. With any positioning statements, particular care needs to be taken with the language to ensure it does not have unintended consequences.
-What are the risks – both reputational and business – of taking a stand on an issue in both the East and the West? What business trade-offs is the company prepared to make in order to remain steadfast to their cause? If the worst-case scenario happens, companies need to understand – and be prepared to accept – the potential impact of prolonged negative consumer sentiment and boycotts of their business in the affected market.
So, while consumers are demanding action, knowing the right time to stand up, the right issue to champion and the right words to say is more complex than ever. It has never been more important for companies to have their eyes wide open to the implications of ongoing trade policy developments before taking a stand. These decisions can not only impact reputation but also business.
This piece was written by Rachel Catanach, Senior Partner and President Greater China FleishmanHillard and Honorary Secretary of PRHK. PRHK Viewpoints is an article series contributed by members of PRHK, Hong Kong’s PR & communications association.