Earning a social licence to operate: Implications for brand and profitability

A social licence to operate means focusing first on doing the right thing, and only then being concerned with being seen to do the right thing. By Dwayne Alexander.

In late October I flew from Auckland to the United States capital for the Global Sabre Awards, bookended by meetings with key contacts and international colleagues. Our team was proud to be judged #8 of the top 40 global PR campaigns of the past 12 months, ahead of the likes of McDonald’s, UNICEF, Anheuser-Busch and Target. It was our seventh global award for the year, so the team is energised.

Our awards in London, San Francisco, Singapore and Washington DC highlighted some immediate trends among winning companies. 

What distinguishes winning global initiatives from those that never get off the launch pad, or make little impression when they do? What should companies be doing if relevant differentiation is a goal? 

There are too few studies linking the value of brands which have earned a social licence to operate to profitability; but anecdotally we see there is a link.

What was evident at the Global Sabre Awards is that many winners focused on first doing the right thing, and only then were concerned with being seen to do the right thing.


Do the right thing? 

1. A social connection: Social media has lent some dark connotations to the word ‘social’ – but aspiring for social reach is a winning and positive strategy. Of the top 40 campaigns in the world, at least 80 percent had some kind of social or human connection, from ‘Work Does Not Discriminate’ by the Confederation of Finnish Industries to the #1 campaign, Gerber’s ‘Every Baby is a Gerber Baby: Sparking a Global Conversation on Inclusion.’ As a global community, we are now looking for hard, data-mined evidence that the money invested in these campaigns is doing good for communities and companies.

2. A social licence to operate: The next step goes beyond the campaigns and into the companies behind them. Not for many years now has a company or CEO been easily able to baffle or bullsh-t consumers by waving a PR wand in front of a problem. 

A social licence to operate goes beyond the basic tenets of business. Every business has competitors; why should people patronise yours? What do you stand for? What are they supporting, in a larger, globally meaningful, social sense, when they buy from you instead of Company B? 

If you can answer this question and articulate it to the market, you are halfway towards achieving your commercial goals and you’re operating a 21st Century business.


Be seen doing the right thing

3. The social is political. That long-ago feminist rallying cry – “The personal is political” – has been updated for the digital age. Social media makes the personal public, and what’s public can be bought and sold, analysed and politicised.

In the climate-change age, we can no longer afford to trust governments to take care of necessary positive change – they usually get around to it, but we don’t have time to wait. Even community groups, churches and family and friend groups can’t do it without help. The power of companies must be harnessed to help save the planet, protect the mental health and physical well-being of workers, support the lives of families and give something useful back to communities. 

This doesn’t all have to be altruistic, although there’s plenty of actual economic return in having a thriving worker base and planet; making a real contribution to the world is a measurable point of difference from competitors too. Governments recognise this, and are starting to reward with procurement if a company can demonstrate how it will add to the four quadrants / living standards.

Can you better make an impact by considering previously untapped markets for social good? Staff good? Community good?  I suspect the triple bottom line will thank you.  


Dwayne Alexander, is the global practice leader at Alexander PR & The Content Place, which have been recognised in seven awards in London, Asia Pacific, San Francisco and Washington DC at the SABRE, DRUM & World PR Awards.

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