Corporate reputation under a new spotlight

Sep 30, 2020

Donnchadh O’Neill explains why boards and their advisers will have to tread carefully as they work to recover their foothold in the new landscape.

All professional advisers, including Chartered Accountants, are seeking new ways to support their clients. They are helping them navigate unprecedented changes in their workplaces, their financial reporting, their restructurings, and their contracts. In many cases, they are helping businesses fight for survival. Given the heightened risk of missteps in such a turbulent environment, corporate reputation management is now more vital than ever.

In the short-term, clients face practical and legal considerations affecting business reopening following a Government-induced coma. Finance functions have been virtualised and governance structures tested. Workforce and workplace transformation has been sudden. Margin sustainability is the new short-term challenge as costs increase, and that is before you consider the looming recession and inevitable insolvencies that will follow.

In the last crisis, services and supports to business changed with firms flexing different muscles more suited to the adverse conditions. Liquidators and receivers found themselves in the headlines, sometimes even taking strict precautions to protect their safety by avoiding media attention.

Now no one can predict with any accuracy where this crisis will lead in working trends, in accountability requirements, and in ownership structures post-bailouts and business retrenchment as we face into recession. It is easy to foresee the bloodbath on Grafton Street and in specific sectors, which has already begun in terms of liquidations and receiverships. What is more intangible is the effect this long drawn out crisis will have on corporate behaviour, communications, and corporate reputation. Chartered Accountants are on the front line with their clients as these winds blow.

I have worked over many years with excellent companies delivering on what they see as their mandate for their various stakeholders. They focus on delivering shareholder value, but also stakeholder value. Following the financial crisis, good corporate ethics, culture, and governance became a priority. Chartered Accountants Ireland shared a leadership role in this arena, with strong educational initiatives to teach and support members, business executives, and even directors. Accountants helped their clients develop risk management processes, including reputation risk, to embed prudence into corporate culture, prevent hubris, and guide decision-making.

Regulation increased, especially in the financial services sector. The banking industry set out to address its behaviours by establishing the Irish Banking Culture Board. The EU grew its oversight activity by exercising its muscle to protect consumers. As climate change moved up the public agenda, companies began to include sustainability reports in their annual reports – and this will continue.

Over the past number of years, the corporate sector has increasingly had to become more socially conscious, valuing and measuring its societal impact and its corporate reputation. This emergency has put a whole new speed and power behind what was already a growing trend. As harder decisions are taken in the months ahead, companies and clients will need sound judgement as they implement decisions that have a societal, as well as a financial, impact. The climate crisis is upon us and is already forcing its own reset. Failure to make decisions that account for the common good and the public interest can wreak enormous reputational damage and all the attendant costs of that. Great care and balanced thinking will see companies achieve their goals without being forced by political or public opinion to backtrack or revisit decisions ineptly announced or executed. Markets will judge companies ever more so on their ethical behaviour.

Look at the public interest trend of late: companies and wages being kept afloat by the State;   companies declaring a pause in dividends (if only to preserve cash); others being mandated to do so (e.g. the banks). More than 300 listed companies in the UK have cut or cancelled pay-outs. Money earmarked for shareholders will be used instead to service or repay debt, or just to stay afloat. The insurance industry was elbowed by the Minister for Finance, while the courts will probably have the final say. Companies such as Aldi pledged to pay their small suppliers early to keep their cash flow healthy.

I do not doubt that as governments the world over ultimately face the bill for this COVID-19 bailout, tax and tax avoidance and wealth taxes will move much faster to the top of the agenda. This will feed into director and corporate reputation management, and advisers will have to be aware of the spirit as well as the letter of the law when advising clients.

Commentators are already forecasting a shift away from capitalism and globalisation – that will continue. Growing your food locally and manufacturing locally suddenly look like viable ways to manage your own future risk. Brexit and global trade wars are yet to hit, not to mention the effects of preparing businesses for a low-carbon future.

Will companies and their financial advisers, expected to act as citizens, focus on protecting and building up their social capital as well as their share capital? Employee health and protection became the top priority in recent months. How do you provide for unknown bottom line impacts for employee illness, absenteeism, or indeed legal claims? Insecure, gig economy, zero-hours type jobs have also been exposed for their human cruelty, and there will be a continuing priority on workers’ economic health (possibly even a universal wage or basic income for all).

While capital will naturally only go where it has a reasonable expectation of a return, will investors be forced to rethink what is proper and possible for successful companies in an era of depression? How will directors and boards justify levels of executive remuneration that might look extreme and still manage to retain the permission to operate under a social contract, maintaining trust and enjoying a corporate reputation that underpins value? Apart from taxes, will companies have to become almost philanthropic in some of their behaviours?

Corporate activism will grow as companies need to be seen to be responsible; to solve, not just sell. Liquidators and receivers will have to execute their mandates with an assured eye on the public and political impact of their decisions.

Will companies build and wield their ‘soft power’ in focusing on purpose as well as profit? We have all admired genuine public service and public servants in recent months. Will the era of State-owned commercial entities come back into fashion by necessity, forced to step in and own hotels (remember Great Southern?), airlines, food companies (remember Irish Sugar and Erin Foods?), shops and insurance companies? We might well be facing an era of “de-privatisation”.

In a perfect storm of increased costs, reduced margins, and recessionary outlook, with bankers and receivers taking hard decisions, the need for companies to communicate, to explain, to justify and most of all, to “do no harm” will be right up there among the top commandments. Boards and their advisers will have to tread carefully as they adjust, speak, and act to recover their foothold in the new landscape. Companies will sustain great reputations not just because they have great products and services, but also because they take full account, in advance, of the public impact on – and reactions to – their decisions.

Donnchadh O’Neill is Managing Director of Gibney Communications.