High Expectations for Corporate Behavior

26 Sep, 2018

Public Affairs Pulse Survey

High Expectations for Corporate Behavior

Americans believe community service and social responsibility often take a backseat to corporate profits, according to the 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey. Forty-five percent agree that “major companies generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.” But 52 percent disagree, including about one in five who completely disagree with that statement.

When facing a serious crisis, some companies think their solid reputation will restore the public’s trust. This year’s Pulse survey finds otherwise. Americans believe a company’s honesty and responsiveness in dealing with a crisis is far more important than its long-term reputation prior to a crisis.

Corporations Held To High Standards

Americans expect major companies to hold their employees ethically accountable. Nearly all of those surveyed say it is important for companies to make sure their employees behave ethically and 80 percent say it is very important.

But people do not want Big Business to stop there; they want firms to make a positive difference in the world. Seventy-six percent feel it is very important for major companies to minimize any negative impact they may have on the environment. Another 17 percent say it is somewhat important that businesses limit environmental damage.

Over half believe it is very important that companies make financial contributions to charities and take a leadership role in helping society. When responses are counted for those who say these activities are somewhat important, it’s clear that the vast majority of Americans have high expectations for corporate community engagement.

Although only 22 percent of Americans can be described as being civically active (because they contribute time or money to political causes or volunteer their time to community organizations), 47 percent say it is very important that major companies encourage their employees to volunteer their time to help others. Four in ten also believe it is very important that businesses shoulder more responsibility for helping government solve problems.

Promoting a Company’s Good Works

Even when corporations take all the positive steps the public expects, without effective communications their efforts may go unnoticed. Because Americans get their news and information from a wide variety of sources, companies need to explore different channels to connect with stakeholders.

When asked to identify the best ways for companies to inform the public about their corporate responsibility activities, survey respondents give social media the top score, with 45 percent calling it very effective and 38 percent saying it is somewhat effective.

Not surprisingly, age is a key factor here, with younger generations giving social media the highest ratings. Sixty-two percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say social media is very effective for this purpose and 50 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds make the same assessment. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 25 percent of those ages 65 and over agree that social media is very effective when companies are trying to promote their good works.

Among various racial and ethnic groups, 55 percent of black Americans give social media top marks for effectiveness and 49 percent of Hispanic Americans say social media is very effective.

Other communications options can be advantageous as well. More than one-third of Americans agree that publishing reports about companies’ activities (36%) or holding community meetings (35%) are particularly effective strategies for keeping the public informed. For these approaches, there are no major variations by age group.

Paying for TV commercials and other advertising to publicize community service is rated as very effective by 31 percent of Americans. This type of approach also works for reaching younger adults, with 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 35 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds saying these ads would be very effective.

Thirty percent say that “inspiring others outside the company to publicize the company’s efforts” can be very effective in letting the public know about the firm’s good works. And only 22 percent believe having company executives make public speeches is a very effective approach.

It’s important to note, however, that the vast majority of Americans rate all of these communications strategies as at least somewhat effective.

Inspiring Confidence in a Crisis

Corporations take pride in their corporate responsibility efforts and want the public to know about their achievements. But developing a communications strategy can be a lot more problematic when companies find themselves in the middle of a crisis. According to this year’s Pulse survey, being accountable and transparent are key to restoring the public’s trust and confidence.

When a company faces a crisis with its products or services, 72 percent of adults say it would help “a lot” if a company simply explained how the problem happened and what is being done to correct the situation. An additional 22 percent say this type of straight talk would help “a little” to make them feel the company is doing the right thing.

But people want more than explanations; they demand action as well. More than six in 10 say they would feel a lot better about a crisis if the business took quick action to pay any costs to those affected — even if it is unclear who is at fault. Fifty-six percent state that firing executives and employees who are responsible for causing the issue would also do a lot to make them feel the company is handling the problem well.

Table 3: Ways that Major Companies Can Restore Confidence in a Crisis
I’d Feel A lot Better I’d Feel A little Better I’d Feel No Better
Explained how the problem happened and what’s being done to correct the situation– 72% 22% 5%
Took quick action to pay any costs to those affected — even if it is unclear who is at fault– 63% 28% 7%
Fired executives and employees responsible for the problem– 56% 32% 10%
Issued an apology– 45% 39% 15%
Paid for ads explaining the company’s actions to fix the problem– 43% 44% 13%
Used social media to explain the company’s actions to fix the problem– 41% 42% 16%
Said it would not comment on the crisis until all the facts are available 28% 38% 32%

Other strategies — including issuing an apology, placing ads to explain the company’s efforts to fix the problem, or using social media to communicate — can make a positive difference, but to a lesser degree. Less than half the public say these approaches would do a lot to make them feel the company was doing the right thing.

Refusing to talk about a crisis does not appear to be a viable option, however. Only 28 percent say it would help a lot if a company said it would not comment on a crisis until all the facts are available. In contrast, 32 percent say a company keeping quiet would do nothing to make them feel the firm was handling the problem the right way.

Restoring Trust in the Aftermath

When something goes terribly wrong, having a good reputation matters — but not as much as having an effective crisis-response strategy.

Once a company makes a mistake related to its products or services, 64 percent of Americans say its honesty and responsiveness in dealing with the crisis is the most important factor in deciding whether they will buy from that company in the future. In particular, Baby Boomers (71%) and people who are deeply involved in their communities (72%) value this factor the most.

A distant second consideration is the company’s long-term reputation. Just 16 percent say this is the most important factor influencing their decision to patronize a business in the future. Even fewer people say their biggest consideration is the price of the products or services (11%) or their family or friends’ opinions about the company (7%).

How the Public Gets Involved

Americans have high expectations for major companies to help society, and many hold themselves to those same high standards. Nearly six in ten people have regularly volunteered their time to charitable or community causes. One-third have attended local community meetings. Twenty-six percent have contacted their elected officials to discuss their concerns. Nineteen percent of adults have contributed time or money to a political campaign or participated in groups to influence public policy.

The Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted July 6–20, 2015, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, is based on telephone interviews with 1,601 adults nationwide.

2015 Pulse Survey


Laura Horsley
Senior Director of Marketing and Communications
202.787.5963 | email