Is Occupy Wall Street becoming a catalyst for change In our approach to corporate social responsibility?BY JOHNNY MCGINLEY
Some western commentators have theorised that the movement has come about because of the impact of the economic downturn and government austerity measures on citizens. Yet here in Asia our economy is booming, in stark contrast to the USA and Europe, yet despite that we have not been immune to the movement. Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading financial trading centres now has an Occupy Central movement.
At the time of writing the Occupy Central movement has 5492 fans on Facebook and has a group of protestors at HSBC’s headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district. There is also an Occupy Hong Kong Facebook group with 2965 fans. The movement held a rally in October 2011 where it was estimated that around 300 people took part with others showing support for the movement in solidarity.
Globally the world’s financial centres including Hong Kong, London, New York, Tokyo and Singapore are fast being united by the issue of the movement. It is increasingly creeping into the board rooms of banks, financial institutions and corporate businesses. There is arguably now more than ever a need for a united and consistent response to the movement by the world financial centres.
The sustained western media attention on the Occupy Wall Street Movement has been very effective in raising and increasing public awareness of the ethical behaviour of banks, financial institutions and corporate businesses. Alongside that there can be no doubt that globally the anti-capitalist movement in general has experienced a significant boost as a result of the movement. This has led to Corporate Social Responsibility once again becoming a hot issue in business and going forward I can see it becoming more tightly integrated into strategic corporate reputation management strategy.
The need for an effective response to the movement was highlighted recently by KPMG’s Director of Citizenship & Diversity Lord Michael Hastings at the Net Impact Conference in Portland, Oregon, USA. In relation to the Occupy Wall Street movement he said the following: “We have to figure out how do we respond, because we have to, these protests must drive transformation, which can only come through sacrifice, only by accepting responsibility.”
Intriguingly, I have come across a seemingly popular western business thinking recently that the answer to insulating an organisation from activism lies in increasing its Corporate Social Responsibility activity. The reasoning behind it, at least on the face of it, seems logical. By doing more Corporate Social Responsibility work a Financial Institution can arguably simultaneously improve its corporate reputation, image and build relations with the citizens of the communities it serves.
I have also heard it said that this approach “fits in nicely” with the “people over profit” theme which of course is at the centre of the current Occupy Wall Street movement. But the problem is the Occupy Wall Street movement and increasingly now the general public too, are looking for something much more than simply Corporate Social Responsibility activities from businesses.
What they are really looking for is changes that go inside the organisation. They want changes in the behaviour of corporate businesses and Financial Institutions. These are changes which can only be achieved through changing the internal culture of an organisation and its approach to business and Corporate Social Responsibility.
It is for this reason that I believe Financial Institutions and corporate businesses and brands will now need to increasingly develop and adopt a new two-way, 360 degree approach to Corporate Social Responsibility. The issue I see with the current approach many organisations adopt to Corporate Social Responsibility is that it is predominately externally focused and that makes it unsustainable long term I believe.
By this I mean the focus is typically external usually on making donations to charities, supporting community groups and environmental initiatives. I believe for Corporate Social Responsibility to be truly sustainable in this new environment there needs to now be an equal, and continuous, focus on Corporate Social Responsibility both internally within the organisations culture as well as externally.
In particular for the global Financial Services Sector issues around executive pay and remuneration, accountability and governance structures and ethical issues and perceptions by the public around wealth distribution are all issues that I see crossing into the Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Reputation Management arena going forward. Corporate Public Relations professionals in Financial Institutions will therefore need to be acutely aware of this and plan for it accordingly.
In particular they may find themselves becoming increasingly involved in advising and counselling senior management on these issues from a corporate reputation management and social responsibility perspective. This in turn may necessitate changes in the internal culture that will need to be managed carefully and sensitively from an internal communications and engagement perspective. These changes will undoubtedly present new challenges for Corporate Social Responsibility management going forward but I believe the changes are necessary to effectively and sustainably manage the impact of the Occupy Wall Street and anti-capitalism movements.
So far the Occupy movement may not have had the same impact in Asia as it has in the USA but that does not mean we should ignore or be complacent about the movement. I think that the strong entrepreneurial business culture and work ethic of Asia, particularly Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai has helped to some extent insulate us from the movement.
However, as people’s awareness of the movement increases, they will naturally begin to discuss the movement and the issues it raises more. Media and political attention in my experience always follows what the citizens of a country are talking about. That in turn could then lead to increased public and political pressure for our banking and financial services industry in Asia.
Arguably now is the time to monitor closely how the movement develops here in Asia and track how the sentiment behind online discussion on the issue in Asia develops. Only by monitoring and listening can we begin to effectively plan ahead.