January 31, 2019

by John Kristoff

Having come of age in the booming 1980s period of Reagan-era capitalism, it’s almost inconceivable for me to imagine what it would have been like in the 1930s, when FDR’s “New Deal” program rolled out one social program after another to shore up a seemingly broken post-Great Depression capitalist system. During that period, many people dramatically reversed long-held beliefs about the nature of social responsibility, which firmly established the concept that individuals in our society have clear-cut social rights (something we take for granted today but was a radical idea in America at the time). In the current divisive political environment and period of economic volatility, are we heading for another shift-change in social thinking? And what implications does that have on us as communicators for public companies?

Flag and Wall street sign

One recent article sheds some light on the topic. According to Steve LeVine, future editor at online news site Axios, one of the most important trends driving the 2020 elections will be a growing disillusion with capitalism as practiced, and a coming struggle over how to recast this pillar of the Western order.

Polling shows a rising number of young Americans prefer socialism to capitalism.

  • Gallup found this summer: “Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).”
  • That’s “a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively.”

Why it matters: The main messengers of this coming steamroller are nowhere near the fringe. They’re mainstream thinkers with ideas like, “We must rethink the purpose of the corporation” and “The crisis of democratic capitalism” (both from Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf).

Arguably, there will always be a segment of society that distrusts corporations, but the global trend toward social awareness is an opportunity for public companies to demonstrate and communicate their societal value beyond the traditional demand for innovative products and services or financial growth. As younger Americans become a greater percentage of the corporate workforce, the legislative ranks and the investment community, the pressure on public companies to measure and improve their social impact is likely to grow. As a result, companies need to get increasingly comfortable taking part in the social, and sometimes political, dialogue if they want to positively influence and help shape attitudes toward business generally, and their company specifically, going forward.

Building an active corporate social responsibility (CSR) program and embracing the new environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards set by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is one way to prepare – and we help clients get their programs off the ground. But this requires resource and time – sometimes years – to reach critical mass. We also advise clients on developing a thoughtful CEO communications strategy that embraces all aspects of a company’s aspirations, performance and impact – including social contributions. This can generally be implemented more quickly, but presents its own set of risks and requires thoughtful planning. If you are interested in learning more about how you can prepare for the continuing shift in social and political attitudes to help better position your company for success, drop me a line.