Mingling with the protesters at yesterday’s G20 London protests in the City of London, I began to wonder if there was anything big companies might do to make citizens feel, well, a bit less angry right now.
Whilst most of the crowd, at least around Liverpool Street, were amused onlookers, with more cameras than banners in evidence, things were a bit tastier next to the bank of England.
Around 20 anarchists and associated folk smashed the windows of a branch of Royal Bank of Scotland (one with a computer monitor, what happened to bricks?).
A friend rang me from the scene, where slightly confused police trapped lots of innocent people between themselves and the protests and refused to let some leave the scene for a while.
Despite the low number of hard core activists (a good thing, I might add!) the protest show some serious discontent is really out there, a lot of aimed at big companies, whatever their business.
Whilst CSR or business ethics initiatives are never going to persuade groups such as this one , that global business brings some benefits, I was left wondering what engaged companies could do in this current climate to encourage a more meaningful debate on globalisation and capitalism, the ups and the downs.
Not much, you might argue at the moment. After all, it’s the most brutal downturn since the 1930’s (see all newspapers for that line) and people are feeling the pain all over.
But is now the time for big companies to be timid about the challenges?
I would say no.
Given that workers are occupying office complexes and facilities in protest at cutbacks in differing places all over Europe, what has a company to lose by taking the initiative?
So what might this look like?
Well, a start might be to host some public debates on the issues, and have a more rounded discussion.
The idea (not exactly revolutionary I know) made me think of a debate I reported on (badly) some six years ago.
BT hosted it in London. It was bravely called “What happens when responsible business doesn’t pay?”.
It was more of a “CSR industry” type meeting than a public one. But it was one of the most interesting I have been to in eight years working in this space. Because it was open and honest, and the company didn’t pretend to have the answers. We all came away thinking seriously about important issues. But the mix of people there (journalists, some activists and business folks) was a very useful one.
I’m not suggesting debates such as these have to be hosted a corporate HQ’s all over the world. That would be inappropriate I think.
But companies could use their resources (by which I mean money!) and convening power (brand) to work with others, such as think tanks or societies, to bring people together again now, as BT did six years ago, to debate the issues.
Surely this would be a helpful right now. Charities, media entities and others are too cash strapped right now to think of doing this kind of thing on their own. But a big company with a plan to reach out and be at the heart of the debate could really help here.
Something to consider, I would suggest.
We published a free report a year or so ago that looks at how companies can contribute to what you could call “societal capacity building”. If you are interested, it’s here to download