Welcome to the Christmas Edition of the Conversation!
2017 has been a busy year and full of change here at Sermelo. We’ve moved office, started working with some exciting new clients, and have strengthened the team. We’re also partnering with SIGWATCH, an NGO tracking and analysis consultancy that helps businesses manage global activist risk.
In this edition, you’ll hear from Jonathan Jordan (Founder of Sermelo) and Robert Blood (Founder of SIGWATCH) about some of the corporate challenges of 2017. We’ve also compiled some of our key insights from Sermelo blogs in 2017, from topics such as nationalism, to communicating in context, to executing an effective crisis simulation.
As always, we love to hear your feedback so please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and comments on topics you'd like us to focus on in 2018.
We’re delighted to inform you that Ben Rothschild was promoted to Consultant at the start of this year. Ben has done some fantastic work for both FM Global and Andermatt Swiss Alps, generating media opportunities that help them articulate their interesting value propositions in their respective market places.
We also welcome to the team Alex Cook, who joined in March 2017 from Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Alex graduated from King’s College London with a BA in Classics in 2014 and has been driving great results for SAP and Sapa.
We’d also like to welcome Ingrid Solberg of SIGWATCH who is sharing our office with us. Originally from Norway, Ingrid is great to have around, passionate about politics and culture, and has written an excellent blog for us examining the recent Norwegian election and the rise of right wing populism.
Philips Lighting is a global market leader with recognised expertise in the development, manufacturing & application of innovative LED lighting solutions. With emerging risks facing corporations around technology, cyber, data breaches, as well as the rise of hyper connectivity through the Internet of Things (IoT), reputation management has become even more complex and challenging.
In 2017, we’ve been helping Philips Lighting run several bespoke crisis simulations at their HQ in Eindhoven. Safeguarding reputation has become a key component in both share price and long term sustainability of corporations, and we’re delighted that Philips Lighting are so committed to both developing (and protecting) their world class brand in the most proactive way possible.
On September 18th 2017, Sermelo helped Sapa launch a major announcement here in the UK. The launch was to support aluminium components for the new hybrid London Taxi, and included the investment into and reopening of a new Sapa factory in Wales.
Working with Sapa, we achieved blanket national business media coverage on the day in the FT, The Telegraph, BBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and held a number of high profile interviews at our offices in Aldwych House.
A Conversation with Jonathan Jordan and Robert Blood
Sermelo consultant Alex Cook is excited to ‘play the journalist’ and sit down with Jonathan Jordan, Senior Partner at Sermelo and Robert Blood, Managing Director of SIGWATCH to obtain their insights into the 2018 business climate.
Alex Cook (AC): Okay, an easy ‘starter for 10’, what do you see as being the biggest risks to the way companies do business in 2018? Is it a case of more of the same from 2017, or are there new threats coming down the track?
Robert Blood (RB): The Paradise Papers have demonstrated yet again that ‘involuntary transparency’ continues to take companies by surprise, although it should no longer be any surprise: internet-connected data is wide open to theft and leakage in the way old-fashioned paper files never were. We are also seeing civil society encroaching on the traditional role of mainstream media in making the news. Foundations are funding investigative journalism non-profits, campaigning groups are hiring senior reporters to find and sell news that supports their goals. Mainstream media with ever declining budgets seem more than happy to partner up with such outfits. The result will be more intensive, more critical and more professional scrutiny of corporations than ever before – with a high risk of nasty surprises for the unwary.
Jonathan Jordan (JJ): All businesses have to recognise the digital disruption that is occurring in their ecosystems, and actively engage stakeholders to address concerns and provide long term, as opposed to short term solutions. This require effort and collaboration, but more than ever, win-win strategies have to be developed to achieve sustainable outcomes.
AC: And that point, Jonathan, leads me onto my next question - How do you see businesses’ responses evolving to these challenges?
JJ: Innovation and disruption becoming so high on the agenda will accelerate the gaps between perception and reality. I think the leaders in each industry need to become more proactive in identifying the changes that are occurring and share data and evidence, as well as providing examples of what they are doing and secure endorsement from collaborators and influencers.
RB: Management needs to understand the environmental and social vulnerabilities in their organisations and supply chains - they should not be finding out these things from an NGO press release. They also need to be open and honest about what needs fixing, and work transparently to tackle problems, ideally in partnership with credible third parties. Business is both being held to account and being asked to solve the big societal problems, in part because governments are no longer trusted to act. Rather than resist, smart firms will take advantage of such pressures to transform their operations, cement their brands with stakeholders, and lift the reputation of their businesses.
AC: And Robert, with SIGWATCH focusing on how corporates interact with NGO groups particularly, I wanted to ask what are the biggest potential flashpoints in your field, which could spark activist backlash next year?
RB: Although it will surely take longer than a year, the most intriguing ‘flashpoint’ for me is the emergence of new global consumer brands from China and India and maybe Brazil. NGOs will surely challenge them on their environmental and social performance, as they have long done with their Western competitors (Will Western brands demand equal treatment if the new brands are not challenged?) It will be interesting to see if this produces a transformative effect in their domestic markets where NGO pressures are currently far less if not minimal compared to Europe or the USA.
AC: And Jonathan, a quick word to finish - How do you see the communications industry evolving in 2018?
JJ: There is a trust deficit and this can only be bridged by communicating the responsible initiatives that are being taken and having third parties endorse these actions.
A Look Back on 2017 - Sermelo Insight on the Big Issues
In 2017, the Sermelo team and other guest bloggers have created a number of insights exploring a range of topics. These have varied from the effect of fake speech, the importance of promoting a culture accepting of free speech, to how business can adapt their communications in a time of rising nationalism.
We've placed a selection of the key insights from these blogs below, split into various themes. We hope you find them interesting!
Nationalism has certainly become more apparent over the last year, following a series of surprising political events throughout the west democracies. These nationalistic tendencies can pose a major threat to businesses:
- “Political instability, such as the friction, division and polarization that characterizes populist movements will always pose a risk to business.”
Ingrid Solberg, Sigwatch
- “All the signs currently suggest that we’re moving towards a more inward-looking society as nationalism, sovereignty and protectionism begin to dominate the global news agenda.”
- “This shift in how some of the world’s superpowers are operating is presenting new communication challenges for businesses. In particular, multinational organisations that operate across multiple borders may have to rethink their communication strategies.”
Given the rise in nationalism, communicators and businesses must respond:
- “Business must look to engage all of their audiences through authenticity. The societal changes that we’re witnessing globally are due to dissatisfaction with the status quo. In light of the financial crisis and perceived lack of corporate social responsibility, there is anger amongst many people. People are losing trust in multinational organisations.”
- “Good public relations used to be about saying the right thing at the right time, but in 2017, it’s about repeated and continuous ethical behaviour.”
These nationalistic tendencies have certainly been influenced by the spread of so called, 'fake news'. Companies need to be able to adapt to the risk of fake news, in order to guarantee long-term profitability and reputation:
- “Companies are more vulnerable than ever to being swept up into the maelstrom of fake news stories and conspiracy theories (even when later exposed) causing lasting damage to brand and reputation.”
- “It is a key right of the public to hold corporations to account when they have fallen short of the social values society expects of them. However, when false news stories are mixed with legitimate critiques of business, it becomes very difficult to tell them apart without arduous investigation.”
- “It is vital for companies (especially larger companies with bigger reputations) to vigilantly monitor the media, both social and traditional, to arrest false news stories at the source, before they snowball and gain traction. In the ‘kangaroo courts’ of the internet, perception trumps reality.”
When fake news does strike, companies can be at risk – bespoke crisis simulations can help companies navigate the issues and controversy created:
- “Recent corporate scandals in 2017 have reinforced the importance of having a robust crisis management plan.”
- “From United Airlines’ treatment of one of its passengers, to the behaviour of Uber’s CEO in one of his employees’ taxis, incidents involving high profile companies continue to damage and devalue corporate reputation.”
- “A well-managed issue can snowball into a full blown crisis with just one wrong move, so it will be interesting to see how the issue pans out.”
- “During a crisis, every action has a reaction and an effective crisis simulation should convey this. Crisis scenarios should be planned out and have sufficient complexity so that every decision the participants make leads to a new scenario.”
Freedom of Speech
Even though fakes news can be a major problem for businesses, a culture of 'free speech' is still vital in maintaining the health of the workplace. In order to ensure that this free speech enhances employee engagement and business productivity, businesses should remain aware of the following:
- “Employees are ambassadors of the brand and must demonstrate (and align with) it on a daily basis.”
- “Employees don't want to be ‘robots’. The trick is in finding find the ‘sweet-spot’ between the employer’s ethos and the personalities of the employees. It’s a fine balance, but if businesses can find it, they should be able to match employee engagement with outstanding performance.”
- “Within businesses a diverse mix of dynamic and creative people is required, to match the diverse nature of clients.”