Report: ESG Performance Tops List of Corporate Affairs Risk Priorities Globally for Organisations

ESG also Dominates the List of Corporate Affairs Functional Priorities

15th July 2021 – ESG performance tops the list of Corporate Affairs risk priorities globally for organisations (46%), according to a new survey report launched today by the University of Oxford and GlobeScan. Corporate Affairs experts point to climate change as the most-pressing ESG issue for global businesses over the next two years followed by net zero / carbon emissions and inequality in society.

Pandemic management (32%) is the second-highest Corporate Affairs risk priority in a shift that emphasises more human concerns. Less urgency is placed on the broader, longer-term issues of macro-economic risks (20%) and regulation (17%).

Employees are the most important stakeholders, with shareholders and governments rounding out the top three, reflecting the impact of COVID-19. Employees are also the number-one stakeholder group globally and across almost all sectors.

Following the inaugural Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs Survey in 2020, this year’s survey report provides an overview of opinions, trends, and challenges through the lens of Corporate Affairs practitioners. We captured the views and insights of 228 senior professionals who were surveyed in February and March of 2021 on issues and themes of relevance to the Corporate Affairs function.

Against the combined backdrop of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and geopolitical pressure, the survey looked at where the function has been spending time over the last 12 months and which areas have grown in prominence. The appetite for corporate activism is strong in all sectors globally, with over 75 percent of organisations having either “some appetite” or a “strong appetite” for corporate activism, except in the financial services sector where the number is still material but slightly lower (67%). Regionally the picture is similar, with over 75 percent of organisations in all regions having “some appetite” or a “strong appetite,” except for in Asia-Pacific where this number is considerably lower at 60 percent.

Rupert Younger, Director, Centre for Corporate Reputation Research and Corporate Affairs Academy, Saïd Business School, Oxford University, said: “What is most striking about this report is the speed at which ESG commitments have become the most critical dimension of corporate reputation strategies.  For years, ESG was a topic for the investor relations department using broad sustainability report data. In 2018, only 18 percent of respondents saw ESG as a “top three pressing risk” to global business.  Our 2021 survey report sees this jump to 46 percent. Today, ESG commitments are a defining aspect of perceived corporate character, shaping the way in which different stakeholders interact with the organisations that they do business with.”

Trust continues to be a significant driver of Corporate Affairs strategy. There has been a marked increase in the percentage of Corporate Affairs leaders who believe that their organisations are now trusted by society, up to 41 percent from 26 percent last year. This acknowledges the way in which companies have acted at pace and at scale in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, organisations still face a trust deficit in relation to other institutions.

Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan, said: “One of the most important things Corporate Affairs teams try to achieve is to have their companies trusted by stakeholders. The growing sense that respondents’ companies are more trusted this year than last is also borne out by GlobeScan’s annual global public opinion research, where we have seen a significant increase in the general public’s trust in large companies. The combination of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging more deeply on ESG issues, and reinforcing purpose across their businesses have likely all contributed to these stronger levels of trust.”

Corporate purpose is similarly an area of organisational concern that is receiving ever greater attention. This year, many more companies have articulated purpose statements (83%) and say that it has a growing influence on decision-making. But when it comes to the actual impact of purpose on organisations, the results reveal some clear areas of concern. Strong stewardship from leadership has fallen away and only around a third of companies believe that their employees understand how what they do helps to deliver on the company’s purpose. The hard work is just beginning when it comes to ensuring that not only is purpose grounded in fact, but that it is a meaningful catalyst each day and for all stakeholders.

The Corporate Affairs function remains well regarded as a protector and promotor of corporate reputation according to 44 percent of respondents. However, it remains underappreciated as a driver of overall organisational value, with half of respondents believing that its role is not seen as “strategic.”  The keys to changing this are foresight (the use of predictive data and trends) and continuous upskilling including visible upticks in the quality of new hires into the function.

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Notes to Editors

Following the inaugural 2020 Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs Survey, this online survey was conducted between February 25th and March 29th of 2021 and the data collected provides a view of evolving sentiment during the last year. Over 3,200 Corporate Affairs, Corporate Communications, and related practitioners were invited to participate in the survey.

Despite several other surveys targeting the same set of respondents, 228 Corporate Affairs practitioners took an average of 20 minutes to complete the survey. The realised sample is highly representative of the broader Corporate Affairs function globally. Participants from 38 countries and all main sectors completed the survey.

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About the Oxford-GlobeScan Global Corporate Affairs Partnership

The University of Oxford and GlobeScan formalised a partnership in 2019 to deliver enhanced insight into the roles, responsibilities, challenges, opportunities, and themes facing leading global Corporate Affairs professionals around the world. The primary purpose of the partnership is to generate valuable research findings for organisations, senior executives, and Corporate Affairs leaders through a regular “pulse” of novel, timely, and data-driven insights about the evolution of the Corporate Affairs agenda.

More information is available here.

About Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

In 2011, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, created the Corporate Affairs Academy, a research-led programme for leading global Corporate Affairs professionals interested in developing greater insights and shared best practice. Seated within the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, this invitation-only annual academy programme focuses on reputation thinking and engagement combined with functional and professional development and has hosted over 120 leading professionals from Asia, Australasia, China, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Scandinavia, and the Americas.

Each year the Academy publishes a summary of its discussions in a white paper, copies of which are available through the Corporate Affairs Academy website.

More information is available here.