The competitive edge of "speaking in prose"

<a href="http://www.ie.edu/eng/sobreie/sobreie_expertos_detalle.asp?id_exp=272">Joaquín Garralda</a>. Professor. IE Business School

27 September 2007

Trying to sell a few good things the company did in the past as corporate reputation is a big mistake that could have just the opposite of the desired effect.

Many enterprises are discovering, like the character in Molière´s play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, that, without realising, "they speak in prose" and consequently imitate some of the behaviours of the satirised bourgeois character. The work narrates the ridiculous behaviour of M. Jourdain, a wealthy bourgeois gentleman who wishes to climb the rigid social ladder of 17th-century France and who is surprised when his "Philosophy Teacher" points out that he speaks in prose. M. Jourdain discovers that, after more than 40 years, when he says, “Nicole, bring me my slippers and my nightcap", he is speaking in prose. In the light of this discovery, he feels he is "the most grateful man in the world" to his teacher for having shown him this.

It is logical that many of the companies that decide to embrace corporate responsibility matters (CR) do so by examining “generous” actions in the past in a more or less "natural" way to see which of them they can include in external communications. In the search for an activity that may be labelled "socially responsible", it is easy for them to realise that by "categorising" many of their past actions in a different way, they can boast apparently well established CR practices. Indeed, in view of their reports, some companies report their actions (à la M. Jourdain) with a certain amount of triumphalism with little regard for the little difference they actually make.

Without wanting to satirise this attitude too much (even if that is no at all uncommon among companies in matters of CR), the argument of this article calls for prudence from companies that publish a corporate responsibility report that contains no more than past actions in which they have been discovered CR potential.

Discovering, even if it is with a certain amount of surprise, that the company is already involved in CR matters and advertising the fact is bound to fail. If the decision is taken go down the CR road, it is essential to remember that it is a company´s commitment to CR and planned actions with defined targets that affords credibility, and that a creative angle on past actions provides very little at all.

If communication comprises of a self-congratulatory list of actions "spoken in prose", it is highly probable that the aim of improving reputation will not be attained, and it will probably create scepticism of the company´s "intentions" and give rise to criticism for manipulating the facts. The most likely result is a high dose of cynicism in employees, clients and society in general.

Business organisations that have been developing a CR strategy for some time know how difficult it is to maintain this attitude of improvement in CR fields and the efforts involved in the constant innovation needed to uphold the perception of its responsible behaviour. Moreover, they also realise, often to their surprise, that the CR policies they implement are mainly the traditional practical cases of "good management", which had not been promoted with so much energy in the past because they lacked a certain amount of "lustre".

In short, "speaking in prose" alone cannot be considered under any circumstances as a base for a sustainable competitive edge and runs the risk of being received with scorn from the very people the company is trying to impress.

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