Business MK - October 2012

Wed 10 Oct 2012

Take a look at the websites of pretty much any medium or large sized business (and the smarter small ones) and you will see pages dedicated to something nobody ever talked about until a very few years ago: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Up until now, this has meant being a good neighbour on your premises, acting sustainably, supporting charity and having those little stickers on the backs of your vehicles asking motorists to “shop” the driver if he or she cuts them up at a roundabout.  Most importantly, all of these things have had to be visible, to ensure that the general public, customers and suppliers know that they are dealing with a good company.  CSR is a key element of Public Relations because it speaks to the organisation’s reputation.  Today taxation has become the central issue for CSR, or at least the one which is most likely to get a corporation noticed.

If someone had announced in the newspapers before 2008 that Starbucks or Vodaphone was employing legions of dome-brained tax specialists to create cunning schemes whereby they saved hundreds of millions of pounds every year while diddling the rest of us, we would have sighed and turned the page.  Now, in the new “Age of Austerity” we are casting around for other people to take a hefty share of the expense of righting the economy.  If, as the government insists, “we’re all in it together,” then that means perceived “benefit cheats” and “greedy corporations” are firmly fixed in our sights.

Most business owners can rest easily knowing that the scale of tax avoidance measures they are able to access will be too insignificant to bring them to the attention of the wider world.  However, the tax issue is only a symptom of the modern condition, which is that people want to know the kind of people with whom they are doing business.  What is more, they are prepared to make fundamental moral judgements about them. 

Every business, however large or small, needs to be aware of this.  Any improvements in sustainability of production processes or retail environments are worth noting on the company website.  If the business is managing to recycle more it should say so.  Charitable efforts may not be corporate, but if a member of staff does something off their own bat they ought to be given publicity on the company website.  Some concerns offer educational visits for schools which, apart from being an ideal opportunity to explain and publicise what they do will generally make a photo opportunity and might even merit a press release to invite the media along.

These are not cynical ploys.  Yes, CSR is about being seen in the right light but it also involves doing good.  The point is, if the business or any of the people in it are involved in something not directly related to profit but to the benefit of others, that business is perfectly entitled to make a fuss. 

Millions of people in Britain use Google every day and if asked probably would have no idea that the company’s corporate slogan is, “Don’t be Evil.”  Ask those people to come up with a catchphrase for the business today following a few weeks of bad publicity and they would more likely say, “Don’t pay Taxes.”  Your reputation is fragile; look after it.         

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