Corporate affairs in the 2020s: time to stop waiting for the world to happen to us

Patrick Collison, co-founder of Silicon Valley-based payments company, Stripe, has a countdown on his computer’s wallpaper. It’s clocking the days he has left to live. Morbid? Perhaps. But Collison simply uses it as a daily reminder of how long there is to make a meaningful mark on the world.

As one of the world’s youngest billionaires, it’s hard to argue with his approach.

Making any form of positive contribution, in any sphere of life, tends to take courage, energy and commitment.

That’s a lesson business in the 2020s needs to learn, and fast. More specifically, it’s a lesson corporate affairs teams need to take to heart.

Before I commit commercial suicide, to be clear, I am not saying that corporate communicators lack talent, enthusiasm and desire on the job.

It’s more a structural point. The truth is that most corporate affairs teams are, in the grand scheme of things, committed to the status quo. We use terms like “engagement” to describe work which is basically talking to third parties to smooth the external bumps which naturally arise from the delivery of a corporate growth strategy.

This approach is simply not enough. We have entered a decade where the clock is ticking on climate change and faith in all forms of public institutions dwindling. And we do so with the quality of public dialogue at a low ebb. Division is trumping (excuse the pun) collaboration.

Public sentiment is rightfully looking to the business world for answers. In a mature model of capitalism, we should not be surprised that people have high expectations of business. Change is the order of the day. And corporate affairs teams are the obvious spearhead to catalyse it.

Yet, the established way of businesses “engaging” is largely not fit for purpose. Corporate strategies the world over need a much greater emphasis on their external environment.

Corporate affairs and communications teams need to help the organisations they serve bring the outside world in. I recently suggested to an insurance giant that their CEO meet the heads of Extinction Rebellion. My argument was that they shouldn’t view such groups as activists, but potential partners. Both parties have important lessons to learn from one another.

The fact I felt like a pariah by merely uttering these words struck me as a useful reminder of how business instinctively retreats from the external world. We live in fear of a perceived bad headline or negative tweet.

Businesses in all sectors must be more confident in creatively contributing to solving broader issues in which they have a stake, whilst knowing that there are elements of their business model which are uncomfortable to open to heightened scrutiny.

Corporate affairs should be rebranded to constructive affairs and teams given the licence and resource to be much more proactive. Genuine and meaningful external engagement, not a muted, selective, self-serving version.

Ultimately, third parties will give businesses credit for such an approach. Please, as an industry, let’s stop framing our work around the management of reputation, and accept that organisations that actively shape their role in the world will be the decade’s winners.

Perhaps, like Patrick Collison, all corporate communicators should have a countdown on their laptops; a timely call to arms to deliver collectively a bolder flavour of what we do for a living.

After all, there are only 3,640 days left of the roaring 2020s.