CR and External Affairs: brothers in arms or long-lost cousins?

Nick Jackson puts forward the case for more joined-up thinking between Corporate Responsibility and External Affairs teams to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

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CR and External Affairs are obvious allies and can be mutually reinforcing when working in tandem. Image: Mike Darnell, CC BY 2.0

All too often we hear that Corporate Responsibility (CR) departments are operating in a silo. There are many explanations for this: a misalignment of strategies, issues of corporate culture, and an under-developed business case for CR to name three of the most prevalent.

This is a missed opportunity for CR teams, but more importantly for the businesses they are part of. This article will focus on one of CR’s most obvious allies, External Affairs, to show the overlap and give some practical steps CR practitioners can take to make greater internal links with a key ally.

Broadly speaking, External Affairs is charged with two main responsibilities. Firstly, it brings the outside world in to the business: this means it helps the business to understand and develop responses to changing political and regulatory environments, public sentiment and key stakeholder opinions. Secondly, it helps the business pro-actively project back its position and response on issues to key groups such as regulators, politicians and NGOs.

CR and External Affairs are obvious allies in an organisation. They often form part of a larger team already, such as Communications or Corporate Affairs. By linking the two, you can show that you talk the talk and walk the walk. More importantly, when working in tandem, they can be mutually re-inforcing, making both CR and External Affairs activities more impactful for the business.

There are three areas where the two teams can particularly come together:

Firstly, External affairs tends to be a bit more focussed on responsive crisis management. CR should be looking to the long-term and so can bring this perspective into the mix.

Secondly, CR can get bogged down in its own little world of CR. External affairs can bring a reality check of what actually matters to customers, the general public and other stakeholders.

Finally, the range of issues that are relevant to the two teams have enormous areas of overlap. Indeed, they should be one and the same. If you’re a big engineering firm facing recruitment problems, then your CR teams efforts to promote STEM in schools and through apprenticeships should go hand in hand with your External Affairs team’s efforts to influence the national STEM education agenda.

CR can get bogged down in its own little world of CR. External affairs can bring a reality check of what actually matters to customers, the general public and other stakeholders.

If you’re a soft drinks firm, then your CR team’s effort to educate consumers on sugar consumption should go hand in hand with your External Affairs team’s efforts to promote consumer choice with governments. Transparency International’s Corporate Political Engagement Index aims to shine a light on lobbying efforts from big businesses.

Whilst the relationship between CR and External Affairs will vary from company to company, below are some simple steps any company can go through to ensure that CR and External Affairs teams can work hand-in-hand:

  1. Engage with each other. Share your world view, ideas, plans, explore opportunities for collaboration, and, discuss company responses to issues. Engagement should be both formal and informal, and on a regular basis.
  2. Review both team’s activities and strategies. Where are you aligned already? Where are your opportunities for further alignment? Are there areas where you’re pulling in the opposite direction?
  3. Inform the workings of each other. Can the learnings from your CR activities inform the public policy work of your external affairs team? Can CR activities act as a pilot and evidence for the policy recommendations your making?
  4. Articulate the activities of each other. Your advocacy work should absolutely be art of your CR agenda: don’t shy away from this. Your CR work should bring more credibility and evidence to your External Affairs work, use it.
  5. Develop a common language and agenda in order to present a united front. They might be from two different teams, but that’s an internal matter: the outside world will just see the company logo.
  6. Convene your shared stakeholders. If you’re focused on the same issues then you’re likely to have the same stakeholders. Bring them together, create advocates for your company, its CR activities, and the key messages you’re trying to project to the outside world.

In order to be able to do this successfully however, there are a number of caveats.

CR needs to be focussing on the most important business issues: not ineffective irrelevant community programmes, but strategies that hone in on core business issues. External Affairs needs to take a broader approach and be transparent about company positioning, narrative, and stakeholder engagement. Opaque lobbying practices, including shady whispering into the ears of politicians and civil servants, will not be looked upon favourably by customers or the responsible investment community.

Greater alignment between the two leads to more effective CR and more effective External Affairs: which leads to a stronger business impact of the two.

Nick Jackson is a Consultant at Corporate Citizenship. This post is republished from the Corporate Citizenship blog

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