The ethics of corporate advocacy

29 March 2023


Read the latest blog from IBE Chair, Professor David Grayson CBE

A recent survey by the consultancy GlobeScan with the Centre for Corporate Reputation at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University amongst international Corporate Affairs professionals, found that half believe that companies should play a role in taking a public position on issues. What is particularly remarkable is that one in three of those Corporate Affairs leaders reported that their companies have a “strong appetite for corporate advocacy.” Starkly up from just 1:5 a year earlier in 2021.

This increased appetite is reflected in stakeholders’ expectations. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer, from the eponymous global communications agency, has reported that employees globally believe that CEOs should speak publicly on controversial political and social issues they care about; and that 53% of consumers agree that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.

However, if companies are to engage in more advocacy, how do they navigate the controversy and backlash we're seeing in some quarters? And above all how do they adopt a properly ethical approach when probably there will be some part of their operations that falls short of the high standards they aspire to?

Corporate advocacy can be defined as “speaking out & speaking up for sustainable development and social justice.” It can be differentiated from traditional corporate lobbying and trying to influence the regulatory landscape. It is about having a clear point of view on key issues and being vocal about it. Whilst traditional lobbying is aimed at governments, legislators and regulators, to shape laws and regulations, taxes and subsidies in the interests of the company, advocacy is about promoting pro-sustainable development policies and actions. Target audiences may also be wider than traditional lobbying, and include other companies, or changing public attitudes and behaviours. It may also extend to trying to persuade employees, customers and suppliers to become active citizens themselves and advocate for social causes and sustainability too.

The increase in corporate advocacy is a logical corollary of more business leaders identifying the need for more radical action, urgently and at scale, to solve “wicked global issues” such as the Climate Crisis, biodiversity losses and hyper global inequalities. For some, the advocacy is, therefore, expressed in terms of helping to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by their 2030 target date.

More businesses are making bold public commitments to “follow the science” and set Science-Based Targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, go Net Zero, tackle water shortages in water-stressed regions and pay Living Wages. They are also advocating for others to do so and for policies to encourage them.

Yet simultaneously, this corporate activism is provoking a backlash, particularly in the United States, where critics – particularly on the right of US politics – condemn “woke culture” and criticise ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) as “business over-reach” and inappropriate business interference in politics. (Whilst still soliciting corporate dollars for their political campaigns!) On the other side of the US culture wars, critics hit out at “greenwashing,’ tokenism and business hypocrisy. So, is it inevitably “damned if we do, damned if we don’t?” Or is there an ethical approach to corporate advocacy which might at least engage more thoughtful and less ideological critics – and also ensure more positive impact from corporate advocacy?

In The Sustainable Business Handbook (Kogan Page 2022), David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee set out five steps that companies can follow to improve their advocacy.

It starts with deciding if the business has credibility to advocate for sustainability and social justice at all – or whether it has egregious past behaviour or too many current problems that should prevent it from speaking out.

Step 2 is to use a decision tool to help decide whether to speak out on a particular topic. Does the business have a track-record of good performance on the topic or is it some “Johnny come lately” that needs to demonstrate some commitment to action itself first?

As with any other campaign or plan, Step 3 is about corporate advocacy objectives.

Step 4 involves clarifying the target audience(s) for advocacy and choosing an appropriate mix of advocacy tools such as CEO speeches and OpEds, advertising, promoting “White Papers” / Thought-leadership on topics with opinion-formers and decision-makers, and joining in coalitions with other businesses committed to the same cause.

The final stage: Step 5 is to keep advocacy under regular review, in the light of the latest science and experience.

There are also some critical guardrails for ethical corporate advocacy.

First and foremost, be proactive and thorough in checking for inconsistencies between what the company is doing and what it is advocating for. This is to avoid criticisms of negligent or intentional hypocrisy:  of “speaking with forked tongues.”

This is not just in the company’s own, direct core activities, but also through its membership of / funding for trade associations, think-tanks, or political parties and politicians who are actively working against the company’s stated advocacy goals. Unilever set a good example when its outgoing CEO Alan Jope, wrote to all the trade associations in which Unilever was then a member. Jope explained Unilever’s advocacy on the Climate Crisis and then asked these trade associations to confirm that their current lobbying position on climate policy is consistent with Unilever’s position and the 1.5C ambition set out in the Paris Climate Agreement 2015. It was made clear that Unilever would withdraw from any that wouldn’t.

Secondly, transparency (so people can judge the forked tongue / say-do gap for themselves). That includes listing out all the trade associations, think-tanks, and lobby groups they are a member of and how much they pay them, and also publishing all submissions to, for example, government consultations (while redacting any commercial aspects). This is routine in the political world and if companies (and executives) feel they have to be advocates, they must stop thinking of themselves as private entities.

Another “guardrail” for ethical advocacy is to ensure that when a company’s CEO is speaking out, she or he is doing so, to advance the company’s advocacy goals and is not using their status to push their own hobby-horses.

The consultancy GlobeScan suggests five further essentials:

  1. Solid corporate values and beliefs
  2. Ability to listen and respond to a multi-stakeholder world
  3. Translating corporate values and beliefs as related to material issues into clear Points of Views (POV) and supporting narrative –creating a process and approach to ensure quick responses to high-profile public events such as the brutal murder of George Floyd
  4. Ensuring internal alignment and fluency across the corporation (a “playbook” or briefing pack available to anyone likely to be a company advocate)
  5. Seeking sector and cross-sector collaboration, whilst ensuring that the company’s own POV is known as well.

We might also add, remember the Golden Rule of all the world’s religions and great philosophical traditions. Namely, to behave to others, as you would want them to behave to you. Therefore, as corporate advocates, be measured and respectful of others’ points of view. Be ready to engage with the company’s employees, customers, investors where they have a reasoned alternative POV. And always be able to show how any advocacy is consistent with the company’s ethical values and sustainability/corporate strategy.

There will still be plenty of critics of corporate advocacy, but in vibrant democratic societies at least, companies have the right as corporate citizens (some would argue, the responsibility) to speak out on sustainable development and social justice. And in societies where Civil Society, free press and political debate are stifled, perhaps global businesses are one of the few advocates left to “speak truth to power.”

The IBE held a panel debate on the themes of this blog, and would welcome feedback and especially different perspectives on the ideas presented here.

Catch up with the webinar here



Professor David Grayson CBE
Professor David Grayson CBE


David is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. From 2007-2017, he was director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Professor of Corporate Responsibility.

David became Chair of the Trustees Board on 01 April 2019.

He joined Cranfield in April 2007, after a thirty year career as a social entrepreneur and campaigner for responsible business, diversity, and small business development. This included founding Project North East which has now worked in nearly 60 countries around the world; being the founding CEO of the Prince's Youth Business Trust and serving as a managing-director of Business in the Community.

David has an Honorary Doctorate of Law from London South Bank University and was a visiting Senior Fellow at the CSR Initiative of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard (2005-10).

He has served on various charity and public sector boards over the past 35 years. These have included the boards of the National Co-operative Development Agency, The Prince of Wales' Innovation Trust and the Strategic Rail Authority. He chaired the National Disability Council and the Business Link Accreditation Board; in each case appointed by the Major Government and re-appointed by the Blair administration. David now serves on the board of a financial services company in Asia where he leads on embedding ESG/sustainability and chairs the board’s Group Risk Management Committee.

He has previously chaired the national charity Carers UK and one of the UK's larger social enterprises and largest eldercare providers, Housing 21 during which the organisation made corporate history by becoming the first-ever not-for-profit successfully to acquire a publicly quoted group of companies. David received an OBE for services to industry in 1994 and a CBE for services to disability in 1999. He is a Companion of the Chartered Institute of Management.

David has written a number of books on responsible business and corporate sustainability including most recently: ‘All in - The Future of Business Leadership’ and The Sustainable Business Handbook – both with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee. He is part of the faculty of the Forward Institute and of the Circle of Advisers for Business Fights Poverty.

The Guardian has named David as one of ten top global tweeters on sustainable leadership alongside Al Gore, Tim Cook - CEO of Apple, and Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg.

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