Meet a global head of social responsibility

John Luff is UK-based telco, BT''s head of global corporate social responsibility. Does your company need one too?

What exactly does your job entail?

Luff: I took over this job a year ago. Before that I spent 15 years looking after BT's brand through promotion, advertising and events. So it feels to me that what this current job is about is sustainable marketing.

Corporate social responsibility is a horrible label, but I am stuck with it - actually it makes me feel like a vicar. But it has become the label. Essentially it is about three things: the environmental aspects of the business, the impact on our people (for example I am head of diversity) and ethics, and our impact on society, primarily the communities we operate in. My job is to bring that all together, package it and make sure it is relevant.

The cynic would say it sounds quite touchy-feely. What does it mean in practical terms?

The reason I am here is that there is a seminar being run by the British Counsel in Hong Kong on making money out of corporate and social responsibility - quite an Asian approach!

It's got tarred with this image of being touchy-feely, possibly thanks to its origins in the oil industry where it was created to deal with NGOs. It's now an unfair label. When I came in I realised that everyone involved tend to be very hardnosed. On the environmental side, the scientists prevail and they have all the facts and figures and data.

If there ever was a touchy-feely side, it is ethics. Now with Enron, Parmalat and Andersons that is long gone. Now you have to have transparency.

The other aspect, the community investment is viewed as philanthropy. But even in that, there is a huge positive impact on the company's morale.

So the touchy-feely aspect has gone.

It seems quite intangible. How do you measure your department's performance?

You have to apply different measures to different departments. One aspect of corporate and social responsibility (CSR) is all about the law - and if you don't comply with that you don't get to play. For example, one of our biggest target segments is government. Most governments now will have written into their invitations to tender, the fact that they want to see very clear CSR standards. In Australasia, for example, very high environmental standards must be met. In Europe, there are a lot of Green parties too in politics, which leads to stong environmental issues and discrimination issues. If you are not good in these areas, you don't even get to bid.

You also have the cost side. If you don't comply with laws you get fined. So it's an overhead only in the same way that "quality" used to be seen as an overhead. So if you spend the money correctly, it will save you money in the long term.

Where it really adds business value is where you can demonstrate to customers that good corporate and social responsibility generates business. On the environmental side we can prove that our own company saved Stg600 million over the past 10 years. We can quantify this because we measure it through the right online systems. We can sell this knowledge to customers.

The less tangible - and one where I still haven't met the person that can measure it - is your public image. We can track that being good in CSR has an impact on our customer's perception of us. But it is like measuring brand - it is difficult to measure.

I should say that corporate governance and business ethics has come to the top of the agenda. Our corporate customers want to be seen to be buying from supplier who have good CSR, who can then turn to their own customers and say these are the types of people we work with. Three years in a row we have been the top telco in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. That's something that the sales team are particularly proud of. We view it as like a Michelin star.

There is one area that cannot have a monetary value. And that is the area of our own values. Even if you could put a pound or dollar sign on it, I wouldn't want to. For example, I want my chief executive to stand up and say racism is wrong. I don't want to be ever be able to say that is worth X dollars.

Does it constrain your ability to do business, because in certain countries you might have to pay bribes to win business?

We don't pay bribes. And yes, it does constrain us, but not in any way we wouldn't want to be constrained. We work with external monitors who benchmark things like human rights and we apply a traffic light scenario - with green meaning its okay (and that is 90% of the world), amber and red. A few countries are in red.

We have had a lot of corporate scandals. Do people really believe all this stuff about ethics?

Those that know us tend to believe us. Corporate customers do trust us. Having looked back over 15 years of research, I know that trust is the one aspect of our brand that customers really value properly. With those people who don't know us, we have to establish our credentials and prove it to them.

How applicable is global corporate social responsibility to Asian companies?

I see no distinction between Asian, US or European corporates.

It is in the company's own interest too. Good environmental management drives down costs, for example. And where skills are scarce, such as in the high tech space, it is in your interests to try and keep your people, and good corporate governance helps here.

A concrete example of social responsibility is the programme you are working on in China to improve English tuition. Can you talk about that?

It's a tripartite scheme. We are working with the Mayor's office in Beijing, and the University of Manchester. It is a wonderful case study of working on all aspects of communication, with us bringing the technology, and Manchester providing the knowledge, and a very willing client. It's a signature project for us in China. So much of the debate about CRS in the past has been about means of production such as mining and its impact. But that debate is moving to the impact of knowledge and how it can be used for good and bad. So the debate is moving from the means of production to the means of seduction. This is a powerful example of it being used for good.

This will involve videoconferencing and online training to teach English to students in Beijing. It is going to be launched in May.

However, I would stress this is a business contract, which has good spin-offs from a CSR perspective.

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