Al-Shabaab’s war on single-use plastics is a lesson in corporate reputation management

The war on plastic gained a new player this summer: Somali militant Islamist group, al-Shabaab.

In a broadcast, a leader of the group announced a ban on plastic bags. In the same broadcast, al-Shabaab also banned the logging of indigenous trees. Plastic bags and logging of indigenous trees can now be added to a list which includes smoking, dancing, western movies and playing football. What the penalty is for doing the weekly shop without a bag-for-life is not clear, but the group’s orders are not usually ignored.

The sudden concern for the environment is nothing if not hard to square with the group’s other policies, namely targeting civilians in terror attacks, the use of children as soldiers and suicide bombers, and sexual slavery. Terrorism experts have explained the move as an attempt to boost the reputation of the group by showing the local population it can rule responsibly. The obvious problem with this as a reputation-boosting tactic is it being completely at odds with the character of the organisation.

Fixing your reputation without changing your character is the equivalent of, well, banning single-use plastics while continuing to use children as suicide bombers. This does have something to do with corporate reputation, I promise.

In February this year, a group of influential assets managers, under the near religious-sounding name ‘CECP: The CEO Force for Good’, wrote to chief executives urging them to report on their social contributions. A month earlier, Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, demanded that companies “serve a social purpose”. Businesses doing social purpose is nothing new.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, businesses have become increasingly enthusiastic about championing social responsibility.Look on the websites of FTSE 100 businesses and there is plenty of talk about “improving people’s lives”. From pharmaceuticals to energy, it seems big business exists purely to improve people’s lives. A cynic might conclude the rush for social purpose is a crude attempt to boost reputations.

After all, isn’t the primary role of companies still to deliver returns to shareholders, not fix society’s problems? The cynic is probably right for the same reason we question al-Shabaab’s environmentalism: if the character or culture of an organisation hasn’t changed, why should we believe its purpose has?

You only have to look at the troubles taxi firm Uber has had over the past couple of years, to understand just how company culture affects reputation. Uber’s mission to make transport safer and cities cleaner jars with its ‘Animal House’ style culture. Without fixing its culture, Uber’s reputation will continue to be as a company which puts shareholder returns above everything else.

If companies are going to persuade the public that they exist to do more than make money, how they behave needs to be aligned with their stated purpose. This means ensuring everyone in the company, from the CEO to the newest employee, understands their role in delivering their social purpose, and is measured against it.

Only by changing culture can you truly change corporate reputation.

FIRST SEEN IN PR WEEK HERE.