Insights Michael Baker

Cast into the spotlight: business-to-business communications in an age of transparency

As private space becomes ever more public, how many business-to-business companies could withstand a high degree of public scrutiny?

As private space becomes ever more public, how many business-to-business companies could withstand a high degree of public scrutiny?

It’s now impossible to pretend that businesses supplying public-facing organisations can use their remoteness in supply chains to avoid public scrutiny.

Organisations are now glass boxes into which the public can see and make a judgement about products, ethics, suppliers and partners.   When an issue becomes of public interest, greater connectivity through social media and the ability to share and access information puts every organisation linked to an event quickly into the spotlight.

Although this is a relatively new dynamic for businesses who supply consumer-facing organisations, the signs pointing to this direction of travel have been there for some time.  The horsemeat in food scandal thrust into the public eye those companies involved in pan-European meat supply chains which end on consumers’ plates.

Yet many business-to-business organisations are still to ask themselves tough questions about how they should adapt their business and their communications to an age of greater transparency and public scrutiny.  Worse still, some that attract public attention haemorrhage any reserve of goodwill with further secrecy and by shunning legitimate public debate and enquiry.  The cynical attempts of some firms involved in refurbishing Grenfell Tower one year before the catastrophic fire to scrub their websites of mentions of their role were quickly uncovered.

As the forces driving greater transparency and accountability will not be going away, one response for business-to-business organisations is to become more like the public-facing organisations they supply.  In particular, this means having a greater regard for the end consumer or local and national lawmakers rather than simply prioritising strong relationships with procurement teams in the buying organisation.  It also means taking action to change the business before risks become material and exposed by some other means.

While some business-to-business suppliers are waking up to the challenge they now face, including IT firm Salesforce, which last year appointed a senior leader from Starbucks to head up communications who reports directly into the chief executive, there is still some way to go.  A key marker of success will be when more business-to-business organisations see communications as a strategic lever to secure greater value rather than simply as a means to manage or muddle their way through a crisis.