Ethics: use content marketing to talk the talk and walk the walk

Ethics: use content marketing to talk the talk and walk the walk

Ethics are hot right now so there couldn’t be a better time to think about how your company communicates its values

Ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have long been consigned to the ‘boring but obligatory’ pile for many companies. A few exceptional firms such as Cadbury were founded on principles of fairness, but for the most part, businesses traditionally focused their attention on making money and the public accepted that.

“We carry out our business and, on Friday afternoon, we think about CSR for half an hour,” is how Sir Howard Davies, chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland and a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, once described this approach.

However, in recent years, how companies make money – using cheap foreign workers to manufacture products in unsafe conditions, for example, referring to clients as muppets or failing to address sexist behaviour even when it causes talented women to quit – has grabbed public attention, caused outrage and leapt up the corporate agenda as a result.

Governance and CSR have gone from ugly duckling to headline-grabbing swan partly because of public anger at the behaviour of the banks they had to bail out during the financial crisis of 2008. As a consequence, the activities of all large money-making enterprises have been put under the microscope, helped along by a surge of interest in the conditions behind the things we buy.

Social media, which has made it possible for the victims of ill-treatment to broadcast their stories to a worldwide audience, is also a key factor – especially in an age where a polarising President of the United States is so vocal and inflammatory on Twitter.

Companies that oppose controversial policies, such as Donald Trump’s executive order in January banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, know they need to say so in case their silence is taken as acquiescence. That was why major tech companies quickly expressed their outrage and called for action, with Airbnb offering free housing to refugees impacted by the ban and Microsoft, Google and Facebook all pledging support for employees similarly affected.

With so many ways to reach audiences directly, using content on your own sites to build your own narrative of what matters to you has become crucial to public perception.

Virtually every week we see another example of corporate behaviour that may not be illegal but which is unpleasant, crass or lacking good judgement – and harms reputations, hurts the share price and damages careers.

Uber’s slow-motion car crash in 2017 offers an object lesson in why good governance matters. The taxi-hailing service has revolutionised transport since it was set up in 2009, but a blog post from a former Uber engineer about the company’s failure to tackle sustained sexual harassment became a social-media sensation. While the company did belatedly investigate, firing 20 people, the company’s CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick later stepped down after a number of widely-publicised missteps – including haranguing one of Uber’s drivers over falling fares while sitting in the back of his cab and sending an email detailing sex rules for employees on a company trip.

Another company to watch through your fingers this year was United Airlines. Fellow passengers filmed a blameless doctor being dragged off a United flight and the video was retweeted 16,000 times in the first day it was posted alone. The aftermath was no better, with CEO Oscar Munoz apologising for his initial statement in which he had called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”, and for saying different things about the incident to staff and the public.

These examples show that questionable ethics or a dysfunctional culture are not problems to be assessed from an ivory CSR tower, but issues which will hurt the actual business of making money if they are not tackled.

So what does all this have to do with content marketing? While the first step must be to ensure your company has the right governance standards and to enforce them, the next step is to communicate this effectively. Firstly, to let your staff, neighbours, suppliers, investors and customers know that you are a good company doing good things; secondly, to ensure you communicate what is acceptable and what is expected to all these stakeholders.

This is how FirstWord can help you do it:

Be transparent and consistent

Content marketing means using your own channels (website, social media, internal communications, reports, marketing literature) to talk to your customers, potential customers, shareholders, staff and any other interested parties. Done well, it builds relationships, attracts a new audience and lets a company tell its story on its own terms.

One of the first things we can help you with is developing a tone of voice for doing this. Many of us at FirstWord are journalists – and incomprehensible business jargon about synergies and the like not only brings us out in a rash but makes us very suspicious about what you are trying to hide. It also makes normal people either navigate away from your website or tear their hair out asking “But what does this product/service actually DO?” Using clear and consistent language to explain your products, or why you need to close or expand a factory, or what your promotion criteria are, means no one is left in any doubt about your plans and intentions.

Hold your own feet to the fire

If you include a section on the hiring page of your website about flexible working, make a video about your apprenticeship scheme or publish a report giving your supply chain a clean bill of health, then you have an extra incentive to live up to your word. If you don’t, a disgruntled customer, employee or former sweatshop worker will be quick to include the link to the page/video/report when they complain about you via social media.

This does not mean you should not publicise your achievements (see below) to avoid being caught out, just that you should maintain your high standards.

Share your good news

In the thick of doing something excellent, companies can often forget to tell other people about it or to recognise the contribution of everyone involved. Whether it is a project or deal completed or a successful fund-raising event for charity, your own website or intranet are the places to publicise good news.

FirstWord can also help you look differently at your activities and find the good news stories that you overlook because you see them every day. Our engineering client Saft, for example, was aware they had a higher proportion of female senior executives than the industry average, but had never publicised the fact until we worked with them on a website overhaul. We created a publishing schedule, giving them a place and a reason to tell their good news stories.

Think about format

Many executives may think they already spend plenty on marketing and print reams of words in their annual report and CSR publications. FirstWord can help you think about how you format these thousands of words to best effect. In a recent project for CNH Industrial, the maker of Iveco buses and New Holland tractors, we created a beautiful 50-page brochure called A Sustainable Year 2016 from the gems hidden within the thousands of pages of the sustainability report it publishes for investors and regulators. Innovative work on hybrid lorries and tractors, transformative harvesting techniques and employee education were all stories with appeal for a far wider audience, and the slimline document has been well received by investors, journalists, suppliers and local distributors, who are using it as a calling card.

In all these ways, good-quality content marketing allows you to communicate clearly and honestly with all your stakeholders, find the stories you should be telling the world about and to publish them in the most effective way. For better or worse, the internet has made it harder to hide your bad news, but it has also made it easier to tell your good news. Ethics are hot right now and there’s no better time to think about how your company communicates its values.