Stakeholder Trends and Insights
How to Approach Transparency Campaigns:
Lessons from Recent Attempts and Stakeholder Reactions

On the final day of SB ’15 San Diego, SustainAbility’s Mark Lee moderated a panel with two rather controversial brands — McDonald’s and Shell. Lee opened, “transparency is a pre-condition for trust, and trust is a pre-condition for collaboration.”

We need increasing amounts of collaboration now, as we face a changing global climate, where businesses must act as social and environmental stewards while in pursuing financial objectives.

Jill Manata, VP of Global Public Affairs and CSR Engagement at McDonald’s, shared insights from the “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign, while Tricia Elwell Singer, General Manager of Global Brand and Media Partnerships at Shell, shared lessons from its “Let’s Go” campaign. Together, the two taught the audience that the best lessons can be learned by being transparent during critical times. They respectively provided a taste of the purpose and objective of their campaigns, how they were proactive or reactive, and what stakeholders received.

The mantra that McDonald’s employed when developing its recent nutrition commitments was “we want to give you answers, so we invite your questions.” The legal team, which was present in the ballroom for this panel, protected the brand while allowing for complete transparency by the marketing and communications teams. From “Doubtin to Lovin,” McDonald’s learned that providing a social media response increased positive perceptions about the brand by 12 percent — but, ultimately, “if you’re not resonating with your audience, there’s only so much that transparency will get you.”

Then, as Elwell Singer said, “With the digital world – you can go from zero to hero with transparency and being upfront.” Oil is a very complex business, and the ability to talk about it in a way that people can understand is critical. An example was BP’s Deepwater Horizon fiasco: instead of retreating as an industry player during this rough time, Shell facilitated open conversations about the future of energy. Shell found that people wanted straight talk — to hear honestly about what was going on in order to contextualize it.

“We realized we had an obligation to step out and go forward,” and so Elwell Singer spoke to National Geographic and CNBC, for example, hosting conversations that were relevant to those audiences.

Key takeaways from Shell’s campaign include:

  • Everyone likes to ask ‘what if,’ but very few are willing to turn ‘what if’ into reality.
  • It’s necessary to tap into the various interests of the audience; the future of energy is complex.
  • “If you hide in the status quo, then you’ll be no better than the worst player in your industry.”
  • Shell’s CEO now says it needs to be more assertive in the climate debate. “You can’t talk credibly about lowering emissions when you’re slow to acknowledge climate change.”
  • The millennial audience must be included in the global energy conversation.
  • Shell has gotten involved in natural gas issues — being as transparent as possible.

Both Manata and Elwell Singer say they have learned that having a good conversation means acknowledging other points of view, finding ways to connect with people to create relationships for dialogue. Only in this manner can corporate decision-making be most effective, sustainable and prosperous.

Lee wrapped up the session reminding us that the message for allies is: “We listened and we heard you, and because of that, here’s what we’re doing.” It’s not about storytelling; it’s about “storydoing.”


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