USC Annenberg Research Explores the Changing Dynamics of Corporate Reputation and Reveals Unexpected Alignment between Consumers, Employees and Investors

USC Global Communication Report Also Explains Why Woke Has Become a Four-Letter Word and Why ESG Might

LOS ANGELES (April 24, 2023) — The results of the 8th annual Global Communication Report from the USC Center For Public Relations were released today. Titled “New Reputation,” the study shows how consumer expectations, employee demands and investor scrutiny have created a complex set of criteria they consider important when they look for a job, buy a product or invest in a company’s stock. The data reveals a surprising alignment between these three groups on the importance of business performance, ethical behavior, commitment to causes and consumer reviews.

The results were compared to the predictions of a fourth group, corporate public relations executives, whose instincts were sometimes wrong, highlighting the challenge of predicting how stakeholders perceive the value of corporate culture, social purpose, and communication.

Surprisingly, the research demonstrated that despite the complexity of managing multiple messages to diverse audiences, there’s an unexpected simplicity in the way consumers, employees, and investors think about corporate reputation. The highest percentage of each group stated that for them performance is more important than culture, vision is more important than earnings, and sustainable products are more important than sustainable practices.

“New Reputation” also demonstrates that the vast majority of all three audiences, along with PR professionals, believe that businesses have the responsibility to use their resources and platforms to address social issues. However, there are many opinions on how to characterize that involvement. PR people like to call it social purpose, employees prefer mission, consumers choose sustainability, and investors opt for ESG — which few others understand.

And nobody seems to like the term Woke, which according to professional communicators has become a four-letter word to everyone — except the investment community. But there is general agreement that a company’s commitment to causes is more of a reputation-builder than simply making statements about issues and policy.

The term ESG (short for environmental, social and governance) has a different problem. Outside of the investment community, few people are familiar with its meaning. But when explained to them, most believe that ESG would be a beneficial decision-making tool.

Among those who do know about ESG, most believe it has real potential as a marketing tool for companies that have a positive story to tell to socially conscious consumers. But many recognize that ESG can be used to greenwash a company’s reputation with unverified information. Because of that, the majority of investors and communicators believe that ESG should be regulated by a third party, like the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) or the ISSB (International Substantial Standards Board). And most predict it will eventually be mandated by the U.S. government, as it has been in Europe.

Different stakeholders also gather information from different sources. Depending upon their occupation, age or political bias, they may rely on third-party analysis, cable news reports, or opinions on social media. But every group in the study chose consumer reviews as a more influential form of communication than stories about company CEOs or endorsements by influencers and celebrities.

“In an era of activism, politics and polarization, when no one seems to agree about anything, building the reputation of any company is like solving a Rubik’s cube. Every move is connected. Changing the squares on one side of the cube always impacts the squares on another side,” says Fred Cook, director, USC Center for Public Relations. “This year’s research suggests that solving the cube may be easier if you rely on data instead of stereotypes, and insights instead of instincts.”

The 2023 Global Communication Report is available for download at annenberg.usc.edu/gcr. The results were initially shared at USC Annenberg’s 33rd annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium on Public Relations; the replay of that event is available for viewing on USC Center for PR’s YouTube page (@USCCenter4PR).

The Global Communication Report is produced annually by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, in conjunction this year with Myriant, Worldcom Public Relations Group, Golin and nearly a dozen international public relations membership organizations.

The data for the report was collected through four online surveys fielded by the Center for Public Relations during February 2023, including from 684 PR professionals and 496 investment professionals. The survey asked questions regarding companies’ reputations, terms used by media and communication professionals, and the respondents’ understanding and interest in ESG and related reporting.

About the USC Center for Public Relations

Based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the USC Center for Public Relations (CPR) strives to connect corporations, agencies, academics and students to define the future of our industry and to develop those who will shape it. Signature initiatives include the Global Communication Report, USC Annenberg’s Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium, and the Relevance Report. Follow CPR on social media @USCCenter4PR and #PRFUTURE, and tune in to the #PRFuture podcast wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

Contact: Ron Antonette, Chief Program Officer, USC Center for Public Relations, 213–740–3864 or ron.antonette@usc.edu

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