Passing the pub test

December 03, 2013

Corporate responsibility practitioners need to get out more, says Mike Tuffrey, and start talking about the issues ordinary people care about.

What are people talking about on a Friday night down at the local or when out clubbing later? What are the top-selling tabloids writing about? What’s trending on Twitter?

In among all the celebrity gossip, you do find issues there that touch on corporate responsibility: bankers and their bonuses, sometimes lending too much (to home buyers) or sometimes too little (to small businesses); immigrants one day taking ‘our’ jobs or the next stealing our benefits; and why ‘green crap’ is pushing up fuel bills and the cost of living.

Yet if you sit through any of the key note speeches at the growing number of sustainability conferences, as I recently had to, you’ll hear a different set of issues – or rather a different angle using a very different language: human rights and carbon dioxide emissions, materiality matrixes, natural capital valuation, and an alphabet soup of acronyms – CCS, GRI, DJSI and the like.  Small wonder, then, that we have so much difficulty enlisting consumers’ interest on these issues – which only goes to prompt more worthy speeches about behaviour change theories.

Some people in the CSR world (there, I’ve used jargon myself) are congratulating themselves on having moved from talking about corporate responsibility to the creation of sustainable value, and that’s rightly a more business-focused approach. Yet I’d argue we now need to move another step and apply the ‘pub test’ to the issues we address and the language we use. As they say in America when talking about the mainstream “will it play in Peoria?”

A good opportunity to apply this test is the forthcoming UK government Framework for Action on corporate responsibility, promised before the end of the year. The omens aren’t good, because at a recent BIS consultation session the speakers and language were all strictly esoteric for the professionals. However in the long list of ‘CR issues’ that individual government departments are apparently working on, there are some that would certainly play in Peoria – local jobs, food and obesity, unemployment, welfare reform and troubled families, prompt payment of suppliers, and the rural economy, among others.

So I’m putting on my Christmas present wish-list a government strategy on business responsibility that talks to real people about the issues they care about. Father Christmas does exist, doesn’t he?