Ethical conventions

Companies are very keen to show corporate responsibility, but conferences and exhibitions are often very wasteful. But, they could also be an ideal opportunity for them to walk the talk, says Paul Gander

Today, companies are judged on far more than the innovative nature of their products and the quality of their service. The concept of corporate and social responsibility (CSR) is a vitally important one, with companies’ track records being scrutinised, not only by consumers, but also by potential employees, shareholders and investment analysts.

The growing importance of issues, such as consideration shown to employees, commitment to sustainability, respect for the environment, support for the local community and non-exploitative supplier relationships is underlined by the latest CSR research from Environics International. Its 2002 CSR Monitor, with data gathered from 25,000 respondents in 25 countries, concludes that: “Companies are facing increasing demands to broaden their role in society.”

The research not only focuses on consumer attitudes. A majority of shareholders interviewed say that they would sell shares in a company if it behaved in a socially irresponsible manner, whatever the growth potential of those shares. Some 80 per cent of people working for a large company say that their loyalty and motivation would increase if the employer demonstrated greater social responsibility. Conversely, there was evidence of more individuals punishing companies that took the opposite course.

On the face of it, whether they are addressing a business or a consumer market, conferences and exhibitions should be key opportunities for communicating these values. But inevitably, other priorities come into play, in contexts where high costs often have to be justified by visible benefits to the bottom line.

Exhibitions are not only expensive, but are also notoriously wasteful events – a point emphasised by live and digital communications company Top Banana. “The stand or creative work for a particular show is produced, and then it’s gone. People don’t want to store these things. We always try to find out beforehand if graphics are for a one-off use or not. Usually, it’s simply not an issue from the client’s point of view.” says Top Banana partner Nick Terry.

Want not, waste not

Educational and ethical communications agency C21 is even less enthusiastic about the role of exhibitions. C21 managing director Rebecca Collings says: “The temporary nature of these events means that they are tremendously wasteful. How many tons of paper leave an exhibition? Most of it is going to go in the bin. In more general terms, with heat and light for instance, conspicuous consumption is what exhibitions are all about, and that’s very unfashionable.”

Collings says that this starting point of wastefulness can be transformed into positive benefits. She adds: “There are many opportunities for companies to implement really environmentally friendly initiatives.” She suggests that distributing smaller amounts of paper-based information at the event, while pointing visitors in the direction of the company Website is one way to achieve this. In fact, she believes that in the longer term the Web is making the exhibition an obsolete medium; it is far easier to compare products and services on the Internet, she says. This is especially true of business-to-business shows, where the efficient use of time is becoming ever more important.

But if it is accepted that consumer and business shows are still relevant, then the C21 perspective is that this type of event is an opportunity for a brand to “walk the talk” and counteract the common perception that companies’ environmental claims tend to be spurious. “The old idea of ‘brand promise’ is now being superseded by ‘brand integrity’; the product being what it says it is,” says Collings.

This idea of integrity is also important with regard to supply chain issues. C21 has worked on a CSR report for Adidas, because the sportswear brand was keen to dissociate itself from the kind of accusation of unethical behaviour that was being levelled at Nike. The risk, says Collings, is that once the supply chain is recognised to be part of the brand, any claims that are demonstrably untrue can be doubly damaging to the company.

Ethical criteria

Adidas employed a key figure from Save the Children to research basic human rights, and health and safety requirements for workers among its suppliers in developing countries. The document drew up minimum standards for wide-ranging criteria, including pay, guarding on sewing machines and fire regulations. Even if visitors to an exhibition were interested first and foremost in a company’s ethical record, this is complex information, which would probably benefit little from the face-to-face nature of the event.

Top Banana’s Terry picks up on the idea of authenticity in the CSR message, this time in a conference setting. Any contradiction between the company’s claims and its behaviour is most clearly seen internally when those claims relate to the treatment of employees. “Any events company can make people feel good for a day, and the halo effect may even last a week,” he says. “But when the effect wears off, the whole conference can end up doing more harm than good.” The message put across in presentations has to be seen to integrate with day-to-day realities. “You very quickly understand whether the company is just talking up that message or living it,” he says.

Similarly, Collings at C21 notes that the “caring and sharing” reputation that a company enjoys will carry more weight with prospective employees than the basic mathematics of the pay scale. The way that staff are treated – the amount of time off given in different situations, for instance – ties in with other aspects of external and internal responsibility, including the impact that the company has on the local community. This entire CSR package is given increasing importance when analysts are examining a company’s potential, she argues.

If consistency between the message and reality is vital with an internal market then there is at least less of a challenge involved in ensuring that it gets to the right people. But multinationals, with large and diffuse external markets to reach, will have to target communications carefully. Once again, more often than not, exhibition formats will not be the best way to highlight CSR initiatives. Companies such as AstraZeneca use dedicated brochures and other corporate communications to underline these policies. A spokesman for the pharmaceuticals manufacturer says: “Most of the exhibitions we attend aim to communicate with specialists, and focus on the latest products that are coming through. Our market will be interested in whether the medical treatment works and what the side effects are.”

Even manufacturing companies are subject to more direct environmental pressures, and regulation will highlight new products and investment rather than CSR in a live business-to-business environment. International packaging company Amcor says that sections of the Website and the annual report are the chosen channels for communicating CSR. Projects include a link with Earthwatch, where employees from around the world are encouraged to apply for overseas research trips based on environmental issues, and then given the necessary time off work.

Amcor Flexibles Europe PR and communications manager Alison Hilyer-Jones says: “It’s the clearest way of telling employees and people outside the company that Amcor is committed to this sort of thing. Nowadays, everyone has a statement saying that they are committed to sustainable development, but this is tangible evidence of it.”

Closer to home, the Australian-headquartered company is helping to improve its local environment with its Corridors of Green programme, where indigenous plants and shrubs are being planted along Melbourne’s waterways.

There is still an expectation that high exhibition costs will have their direct pay-off in improved sales figures. But the relatively low costs of associating one brand with others offering a similar or complementary appeal is an area that is being explored for the first time. If this is true for consumer brands, it is equally the case with organisations, such as Earthwatch in Amcor’s case, which have particular relevance to CSR values.

Image over bottom line

One easy way of forging this kind of link is through sponsorship. Barry Cole, managing director of the Riviera International Conference Centre on the South coast, has seen an increase in the amount of event cross-sponsorship between the corporate and non-corporate sectors. This is an area where brand image, rather than the bottom line, comes into its own.

He says: “It used to be based far more on the question ‘What’s the return going to be?’ Now it’s far more likely to be linked to social responsibility issues. With CSR becoming more important to the overall standing of a business, decision-making for this type of sponsorship option also has shifted to a higher management level in organisations.”

The Amcor initiatives neatly link consideration for employees with perceptions of respect for the environment. In the case of the Corridors of Green, it also ties in with the third key element, local community. Clearly there will be internal events – and also some external ones – where commitment to staff can be demonstrated in other ways. And sponsorship of external events can be an effective way of creating and strengthening a responsible image in the eyes of business or the consumer.

But generally, it seems the exhibition and conference format is still not seen as the best medium for reaching those who would be most interested in the CSR message. Whether this will change, especially as issues of trust and ethics become more important for investors, is quite another matter.

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