Nick Freer: Character is the tree, PR reputation the shadow

Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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In 2018, corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is seen by many commentators as a near dirty term, perceived more as a box-ticking exercise than a movement for good. In the case of Volkswagen’s disastrous CSR performance in 2015, “dirt” was the operative word as the “deiselgate” scandal cost the German car manufacturer billions and the head of its CEO.

A fortnight ago, Facebook’s moral position was called into question over the Cambridge Analytica debacle and although Mark Zuckerberg and media analysts alike do not appear unduly concerned over the #deletefacebook campaign, what is clear in today’s business world is that it’s as important to have your house in order on ethics as it is around finance and operations. A former Zuckerberg mentor came out in the media last week to suggest that Facebook may be treating Cambridge Analytica like a public relations problem, not a business problem. This brings an Abraham Lincoln gem – “character is the tree, reputation is the shadow” – to mind and there are scores of narratives around businesses that spend more time manipulating the shadow as opposed to tending to the tree.

A number of factors – including the growing influence of Generation Y and all-seeing 24/7 social media – mean companies who ignore their ethics do so at their peril. In a similar way to thinking global from day one, today’s founders need to address their corporate values from an early stage. Values drive culture and problem children of the digital economy like Uber illustrate that a faulty moral compass can lead to dangerous waters.

Some of these issues were discussed at a fireside chat between FutureX’s Bruce Walker and Galvanise Capital’s co-managing partners, Devina Paul and Nick Jones, at Whitespace in Edinburgh last week, with Jones opining that there is a strong case for the core team of early stage companies being involved in both developing values and attaining some level of ownership.
FutureX, populated by young forces of nature like Walker, Adam Puris, Zoi Kantounatou and Laura Westring, is an increasingly influential force in Scotland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and a beacon for the “business for good” agenda that is ripping through the established corporate order from San Fransisco to Singapore. In Bruce Walker’s own words: “We’re one of the leading advocates of purpose-driven business and work internationally to establish platforms, programmes and partnerships to prove that you can build a better world through business.”

What is perhaps most impressive about FutureX – born out of its previous incarnations as WeAreTheFuture and Power of Youth – is the fact that this relatively small team is able to make such a significant impact on a nation’s business scene. It is less surprising when you see Walker, Purvis and Kantounatou use international networks to produce world-class events – as I experienced first-hand at last year’s Berlin Impact Retreat. This month, the team take Scottish startup founders on a Silicon Valley accelerator programme that takes in some of the most innovative technology companies on the planet, venture capitalists who have backed the likes of Twitter and Tesla and campuses that have incubated tech stars like Airbnb and Spotify.

In May, a larger collective – described by Walker as “a refreshingly diverse gathering of over 300 students, teachers, entrepreneurs, politicians, refugees and enterprising citizens” – descend on the Barras in Glasgow to reimagine what the global economy of tomorrow could look like. Corporate values must be regularly reinforced and it doesn’t take long to find the following on FutureX’s site around “questions we ask ourselves every day”: curiosity, compassion, vision, insight and authenticity. Excuse the pun, but Walker and team really are “walking the talk” when it comes to value-driven business.

Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners