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Study Finds Significant Bipartisan Support for Corporate Social Responsibility

November 24, 2021 by Dan McCue
A photo from hotwire's 's blog on how to connect with media and influencers at this year's CES conference. https://www.hotwireglobal.us/blog/how-to-connect-to-media-and-influencers-at-ces-this-year/

WASHINGTON — A new, groundbreaking study suggests not only is there strong bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental, social and governance challenges, but that the bipartisan appeal of these initiatives dramatically increases among Americans under the age of 45.

The study, “Unlocking the Bipartisan Power of ESG,” was conducted by ROKK Solutions and researchers at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business Center for the Business of Sustainability.

It examined the resonance of ESG issues across party lines based on a survey of 1,240 registered voters and found Republicans and Democrats alike view climate and diversity and inclusion efforts as priorities.  

Key findings include the following: 

  • 79% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans rank climate change in the top five issues of importance.
  • Differences between voters on ESG are motivated by deeper divisions across generational lines: 75% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans agree that climate change is at a crisis level, yet with voters under 45, this number jumps to 66% of Republicans and falls slightly to 71% of Democrats.
  • An employer speaking out about ESG issues matters much more for Democrats (55%) than for Republicans (36%) as a whole, but looking at both Democrats and Republicans under the age of 45, both were more likely to want their employer to publicly speak out on ESG issues (increases of 7% for Democrats and 18% for Republicans).
  • 62% of voters agree that diversity and inclusion efforts are a priority: 68% Democrats, 52% Republicans but 67% of voters agree that hiring, promotion and board appointments should be merit based, blind to one’s race or how they identify themselves (71% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats).

The full report can be found here

Recently The Well News spoke with Lindsay Singleton, managing director for ROKK Solutions, and  Dr. Tessa Recendes, Assistant Professor at Penn State and lead study author, about their findings.

TWN: This report is pretty eye-opening, but I wonder, before we get to the particulars, if you can describe the process behind the report and how you came to work with Penn State.

LS: Well, corporate social responsibility has always been a key part of my practice at ROKK Solutions and I guess I’ve always found it a bit strange that there seems to be such a partisan divide over the issue.

I mean, look at the climate and the environment. Republicans are just as outdoorsy as Democrats are, many rural communities are highly Republican, and those are places where farmers are highly dependent on consistent weather patterns.

And yet, when you start talking about corporate responses to environmental challenges — and social and governance challenges as well — it seemed like they were consistently divisive among Americans along political lines.

So I wanted to look into that and see how voters really felt about those issues, and how close my perception was to reality. And what I found was, there just wasn’t a lot of research out there that addressed my questions. 

Fortunately, ROKK was kind enough to give me a budget and I was lucky enough, through one of my mentors, to hire Dr. Tessa Recendes, an assistant professor at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business to be lead study author … and it has been a partnership made in heaven.

TR: I agree. We really enjoyed working together and it has brought about some fruitful and interesting results, so we’re excited.

TWN: Personally, for me, because I write so much about the divisiveness on Capitol Hill, I was both surprised and intrigued by the fact that people “out there,” outside of Washington, are not as far apart on many of these issues as we’ve perhaps been led to believe. Was that one of the biggest surprises for you?

TR: I  think intuitively we had a belief that it shouldn’t be as divided as we thought going in, but I think we were both surprised by what we found. I was surprised to see it.

LS: I was too. I thought there would be a few surprises here or there, but I was floored by how strong the bipartisan support was for these issues.

TWN: Well, I’ll note too in my reading of your results, how interesting it was in terms of age, where young Republicans, for instance, really do want their employers to speak out on issues like the environment and social responsibility. And I guess for the older folks, their parents’ generation, say, the concept of corporate citizenship still seems kind of strange.

TR: I think there’s been a kind of natural evolution in this area, and it seems to me, based on looking at the data, that as corporations are being thrust into this role, people are expecting more of them.

And I think that’s kind of what we’re seeing with the younger generations. They’re the ones expecting corporations to make themselves more accountable and really develop initiatives to be good corporate citizens.

TWN: Being a writer, I’m always interested in the phrases people use in their reporting and such. In the case of yours, I was intrigued by your use of “impact investing.” What do you mean by that?

TR: It refers to a trend among investors who are looking to invest in firms that have committed to social responsibility in some way. So what you have is investors making decisions on investments based not just on financial information, but also on information about how these companies are manifesting social responsibility.

TWN: How difficult is it for corporations to decide the best way for them to go in terms of social responsibility? I mean, every business is different. They serve different constituencies. They have different kinds of employees and so on.

LS: It’s funny you should ask the question that way because there were a few things that were, interestingly, overwhelmingly bipartisan in the data that we saw.

I mean, there are a few issues in the social category that really align with the core American values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For instance, things like fair wages and being able to make a living wage, things like that. Everybody showed tremendous support for … community issues, like education, [which was] another area where there was widespread bipartisan support.

So there are things like that that I think companies can very safely navigate. Looking at some of the environmental pieces, even some of those had a lot of support. So the question becomes, “How do you frame those issues?” Because there were some specific issues and environments in the environment category that really resonated across the aisle, things like energy and water and waste management. So how you talk about those kinds of issues and what the company is doing about them is really, really important. 

Another thing we found is that it’s really important who your messenger is. We found that the CEO is really your most powerful voice, and there’s a trust factor there. So the question becomes, “How are they communicating your message?” Because very few CEOs actually use their own personal Twitter feeds, for example. So companies have to start thinking about ways that can actually get the word out about what you’re doing …  and help build that resonance across party lines.

TWN: Okay, but now I’m putting on my cynical hat. With all the misinformation on social media these days, why should I put my trust or faith in a CEO suddenly appearing in my feed and saying, “We’re doing great things at X company?”

TR: I completely understand people who say don’t trust what you see on Twitter. But I think even in light of that, the CEO is still the figurehead of a public company, and if he tweets a statement it’s going to have a bit more credibility than if a random employee of a company does.

But let me add one thing, and it’s that the credibility of that message on social media can only be sustained if it’s consistent with the other messaging the company and the CEO is doing. That’s where you really get that trust factor.

TWN: Well, what about your employees being your messengers or additional messengers?

TR: Well, that’s an interesting part of the data that I don’t think made it into the report because we found so many cool things … [like] the idea that many in the younger generation are getting their news from influencers.

Now, I’m not saying your employees can’t be influencers, but you can have powerful employees that are also your influencers on social media and can get out the word about the company. So that would be a way to use the voice of your employees in addition to that of your CEO.

TWN: So let’s get back to this notion of bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental, social and governance challenges. Now, it may well be that a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans support these in the abstract, but given the differences in their party philosophies, do you find the support cuts different ways on different issues?

TR: Right. I understand what you’re saying. And with that, then you have to look at the areas and the particular issues that had the most bipartisan agreement. Those would be fair working conditions, being paid a living wage, those types of things that I think you can navigate safely and have a positive impact on the community.

I think that’s where, taken together with some of the other findings, this report really sheds light on what companies should do to address them and how to message them.

TWN: Some companies are obviously more cautious about embracing social responsibility as a public stance than others. Do you see your report as helping the shy ones come out of their shells?

LS: I don’t think we’ve looked at any specific companies in the research, but I think both  Tessa and I can speak to tons of examples of both of the kinds of companies that you mentioned.

So take Patagonia, for example, which is, in its DNA, very outspoken about the issues that are core to its business. And then you have other companies that are much quieter and … I’m working with a number of them that are still trying to find their way in how they navigate these issues.

And you have to remember, it is a relatively new thing and companies are unsure how speaking out or engaging in these issues will impact their talent recruitment and retention, their shareholder value, and even their government affairs policies and approaches. 

What I will say, though, is that it’s not going away, and especially with those under the age of 45, the importance that people in general across the aisle are putting on these issues, is most likely going to continue to grow. 

In fact, it’s actually becoming more of a risk for companies to stay on the sidelines and not engage in these issues.

TWN: We have seen a number of issues flare up in the last few years, then subside and be replaced by even graver concerns. If you’re a company wanting to engage in social responsibility, how do you differentiate between the flashpoint, short-term issue and something that might be better to engage in and address for the long-term?

TR: That’s a great question. Here, we’ve identified a couple of issues that we think have staying power at least for the next three to five years. Those would be, for sure, climate change — and that’s only going to ramp up. Then, at number two, I would put issues related to diversity and inclusion. 

Those are the two biggest areas I’d say companies should really think about addressing.

But you are right, there are specific kinds of flashpoints that may or may not fall into the larger issues of social diversity and inclusion and social justice or climate change that companies may feel like they need to address short-term because it’s important to their particular stakeholders. 

If it’s a big concern for their employee base and aligns well with the company’s core values, then that’s one of those flashpoints that maybe a company wants to step in on. But in general I think the big issues, like climate change and diversity and inclusion, are the ones the public feels are going to have staying power. Those are issues that companies for sure have to figure out how to address.

LS: Staying on the topic of flashpoints, we did look at specific issues as they arise and whether or not companies should be speaking out on them. Specifically, we looked at things like the Georgia voting law controversy and the murder of George Floyd, and how companies responded to those incidents — which is beyond what their traditional realm might be when it comes to addressing ESG issues.

And it was interesting because the data does show, especially with Democrats, that there is an interest in companies speaking out. But then when you looked at the under 45 crowd, the interest rose dramatically among Republicans as well.

So, again, there was confirmation that a majority of people in both parties want companies speaking out on social issues and because of the generational trend, this desire is only going to grow.

TWN: We’ve talked about who should be doing the communicating. What about how they should be communicating? Do you have specific strategies you recommend?

LS: Based on the research, local media, especially TV, is really important to the over 45 crowd, while social media becomes absolutely critical when you start to look at the younger generations.

From the communication standpoint, we look not only at the kinds of platforms that the companies are already active on, but also where their audiences are active. And you tailor your message to who’s on which platform.

For example, most members of Congress are on Twitter and Facebook. And so those are really good places to utilize if a brand wants to incorporate their ESG initiatives into their communications or public affairs strategy.

Tessa, do you want to touch on the kind of language that resonated in these situations?

TR: Absolutely. What we found is that Democrats, by and large, tend to feel a brand is more trustworthy when it’s more highly motivating. 

Republicans, on the other hand, tend to think a company is more trustworthy and more authentic if they use more concrete language and also layer in a lot of numbers. So we would recommend a good mix of emotional language, coupled with concrete progress initiatives, and specific and detailed, forward-looking initiatives. …

TWN: How do you measure return on investment when it comes to corporate social responsibility?

TR: I think return on investment can be measured in multiple ways, but I would challenge companies to not think about social responsibility initiatives in terms of the return on investment. Instead, I’d ask them to think about whether they are living up to the expectations of their stakeholders.

Yes, in the past we looked at these kinds of things entirely from a business perspective, but with the rise of stakeholder capitalism, things are reorienting a little bit. So I think now you begin with the question, “Am I even meeting the bare minimum expectations of my stakeholders?” 

And I think when you begin with that question, that’s when you begin to see that it may actually be more costly for you to stay silent than to speak out.

LS: What our research suggests is that when it comes to companies that sit on the sidelines, not only are they missing an opportunity to do what is expected of them, but over the long-term, as ESG investing continues to pick up, they are going to be excluded from some of these funds. They are not going to be invited to the party, so to speak, and if you think about it from the government affairs standpoint, they are probably not going to have a seat at the table here in D.C. either.

Disclosure: The Well News is partially owned by Kristen Hawn, a partner at ROKK Solutions.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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