CSR Expert Q&A: Nielsen's Wendy Salomon, VP, Consultant, Reputation & Public Affairs

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CSR Expert Q&A: Nielsen's Wendy Salomon, VP, Consultant, Reputation & Public Affairs

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Friday, July 8, 2016 - 1:00pm

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Today, we welcome Wendy Salomon, a vice president in Nielsen’s Reputation Management practice, to join us for our Q&A blog series. In her position, Wendy leads research engagements that deliver business insights to her diverse set of clients. She is entrusted with some of the firm’s most valuable client relationships. 

Wendy has more than twenty years of experience with research and research-based consulting. She has helped her clients set strategy, refine business and reputation management plans, and optimize agency relationships based on research insights. Her work focuses on reputation management, brand strategy, and strategic communication engagements. She has earned particular regard for her ability to consult in challenging B2B environments around the world.

Wendy recognizes the value of both qualitative and quantitative inputs and has intelligibly brought to bear advanced analytics for many of her clients. She is a highly regarded partner and is often called to interact at the c-suite level within her client organizations. She is a published thought leader on reputation management and a sought-after presenter. 

Versaic: Why should companies invest in CSR?

Wendy: It’s funny; that’s something you used to hear asked a lot, and now investing in CSR is not often something that is called into question. 

The most successful companies have led the way in understanding that corporate reputation is a business asset that requires proactive understanding and management—the same as any other asset like their supply chain, brand portfolio, workforce, etc. How a company is seen as engaging with the world—whether it is viewed as socially responsible by key stakeholders—is often at the heart of reputational equity and risk.  

Simply put, the world and the marketplace have moved beyond evaluating companies based solely on the quality of what they make or the service they provide. Equally important to protecting and growing reputation are the relationships a company has with the environment, communities, its employees, etc.
Versaic: What brand and marketing value can CSR and sustainability initiatives bring?

Wendy: We know that a strong corporate reputation clears the way for positive product brand stories to be heard. A company might have a compelling brand story to tell, perhaps even a pitch-perfect value proposition. However, if there are reputational frictions in the conversation about the company—for instance, if some call into question whether the company behaves in responsible ways—that brand message will have a really hard time cutting through the noise. 

CSR activities protect and grow corporate reputation, which creates a supportive backdrop for brand strategies to be brought to life. CSR activities also help the company continue to engage with communities and stakeholders that can provide valuable feedback for their products and services, strengthening their business. Investment in initiatives that bolster reputation unlock business value and shared value. 

Versaic: What are the unexpected benefits or outcomes that you have seen for companies that have implemented CSR programs successfully? 

Wendy: Beyond the good these programs do in the world, one of my favorite outcomes of these types of programs is the positive impact they have on employees. This is true on two fronts.

First, for employees themselves, these activities are often a critical piece of how they connect with the company. It makes them fulfilled, gives them a chance to serve with colleagues in a new way and build their skills, and plays an important role as they go out in the world and serve as brand ambassadors in their daily lives.

Second, we know that future talent around the world feel it is a priority that the company they work for is socially responsible, and this is particularly true of those early in their careers. Even when compared to things such as career advancement, elements of corporate character are a compelling part of a company’s reputation that can influence whether someone wants to work for you or not. The importance of this can’t be overstated. There are many who seek to work in a sexy technology environment but somewhat fewer who aspire to many of the stalwart “traditional” industries that desperately need creative talent to remain innovate. CSR activities can help pave the way to attracting and retaining high-potential hires.

Versaic: What are the three most important ways companies measure the success, and how does that lead to value in the business?

Wendy: From what we see, the landscape of CSR measurement is evolving and is a big opportunity for CSR managers. When measurement is lacking, the programs default to being a line-item expense versus something that drives business value for the corporation. By measuring success, the case can be made that CSR activities protect reputation and shape the business landscape in a supportive way. I’d recommend focusing assessments in three broad areas.

First is actual performance. Are the efforts themselves bringing about the desired positive change? CSR programs take many forms, but they all generally seek to make the world a better place. Perhaps your CSR initiatives set out to feed, educate, or create healthier lifestyles using products that are manufactured with fewer negative environment impacts, or they provide access to cleaner water and the chance for kids to play in cleaner parks, etc. Companies must measure and evaluate their positive impacts, alongside their community and nonprofit partners, so they can share this information both internally and externally. It’s good to do good.

Next is “campaign”-level understanding. This primarily applies to initiatives that are fairly well resourced and time bound, etc. Were stakeholders aware of the effort, how did they come to know about them, and did it contribute to the desired understanding of the company/issue? Over time, insights like this serve to inform future efforts to hone CSR practices.

Last is the overall impact that social responsibility efforts have on corporate reputation and risk mitigation, including the impact on the company’s license-to-operate and overall business environment. This is the business case for CSR that is critical for companies to operationalize—the extent to which being a socially responsible company builds reputational equity and mitigates reputational risk.

Versaic: How can companies truly differentiate themselves in how they communicate their CSR initiatives and results?

Wendy: One of the main things that should be kept in mind when it comes to communicating about CSR initiatives is the basic tenet that companies will need to tell more than just one story. Particularly for CSR, how diverse stakeholders view the information will vary dramatically based on their specific priorities. So, a CSR communication strategy for consumers, for example, is quite different from the strategy for policy influencers, NGOs, or investors. There is a real danger in being tone deaf. Thus, accounting for the different lenses through which stakeholders see your CSR activities is important and has real implications for communicators. 

Another thing I’d share about how to differentiate is the expanded value that’s possible when companies engage in activities that link to their own core competencies—moving from old-school philanthropy to “skillanthropy” or skills-based contributions. This could be a CPG company addressing access to healthy food, a bank educating vulnerable populations on financial literacy, a shipping company getting supplies to storm-battled regions, etc. There is a particular “stickiness” when programs such as this are part of a CSR portfolio, as they allow them to shine a light on the good the company does in the world and also the expertise it brings to the marketplace day in and day out.    

Versaic: What tips can you share with companies who would like to increase the impact of their CSR programs?

Wendy: You’d be surprised at how many companies don’t communicate the steps they take to be socially and environmentally responsible at all. There is worry that it will be seen as opportunistic versus sincere, or boastful versus humble. The truth is that people are making an effort to learn proactively about the way a company engages with the world before they decide to support it—whether that support be in the form of buying the company’s product, working for the company, or welcoming the company’s expansion in their local community. We know that many don’t like what they find and opt to engage elsewhere.  

So, the main tip I would share is to tell your authentic corporate-responsibility story. It’s up to companies themselves to make sure this information is available when consumers go looking; without it, opinions can be shaped by broad industry perceptions, critics, and misinformation. A misperception of many reputation managers is that a lack of a bad story is the same as a good story, under the false hope that the lack of high-profile irresponsible behavior provides the proof necessary that the company is engaging in responsible behavior. For companies who have prioritized social responsibility, it should be a component of their enterprise-messaging strategy.

Versaic: Where do you see CSR going? What is going to be important three years from now?

Wendy: I would say there are two things to watch.

First, we have seen the evolution over the past decade from a definition of social responsibility that was dominated by environmental issues toward a broader view of corporate citizenship. Looking ahead, I think this “bigger tent” definition of what it means to be a responsible company will continue to expand. So, we’re likely to hear more about economic impacts, transparency, employee well-being, etc., as proof points for being a responsible company.
Second, it’s a hobby of mine to take note of how companies work CSR activities into their actual organizational structures. Is there a “sustainability” team or “global citizenship” department? Is it primarily a marketing function charged with creating a glossy sustainability report? Are responsible business imperatives decentralized and woven in across the company, giving it a voice in R&D, community outreach, and hiring practices? It’s all across the board right now. As the definition of corporate responsibility becomes broader—the bigger tent I mentioned—presumably, providing a framework for responsible behavior will need to become more systemic. I’m not sure yet what shape it will take, but I think we’ll see fewer occasions where companies opt to relegate CSR to a silo and fewer instances where it is an appendage on the org chart that is separate from where the “real work” happens. We’ll see more and deeper integration.

Keywords: Business & Trade | Diversity & Human Resources | Media & Communications | Philanthropy | Reports | Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship | Technology

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