Making or Breaking Your Small Business Reputation in a Connected Economy

Although we often hear about how important small businesses are to job creation and economic growth, what may be lesser known is the vital role they play in local philanthropy and solving key social issues. While large, Fortune 500 companies may get the most press and marketing visibility for their philanthropy in the macro economy, small, Main Street businesses are the ones moving mountains in the micro economy. These are the manufacturing, retail and service firms, community banks and sole proprietorships creating the majority of jobs in the neighborhoods, downtown business districts, manufacturing centers and commercial corridors across America.

Owners and members of these companies are committed to their local chambers of commerce. They are the folks passionately serving on the boards of essential charities and their kids’ schools. They attend church and other places of worship and support ministry outreach and giving campaigns. And they are the engines advancing their city or county’s economic agenda.

A 2016 survey by The Business Journals confirms that small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) think and act locally, with 70% preferring to do business with other local companies and 64% giving back to communities to promote goodwill and reputation. Like their Big Brother counterparts, SMBs, too, are paying closer attention to social responsibility issues, with 52% in agreement that “businesses today have a responsibility to address key social and environmental issues.”

These businesses believe working with a company or brand they know and trust is the most crucial component in their vendor or partner selection process. (2016 SMB Insights: The Business Journals).

Building and maintaining trust in SMBs is a grassroots endeavor, a bottom-up approach based on how a small business services and communicates with its customers, employees and other stakeholders. Ambition only takes you so far. Integrity and delivering on your promises speaks volumes.

In the past year as I have launched my own PR consultancy, it has been a tremendous learning experience and a test of faith in my beliefs in business social responsibility, transparency and the positive impact public relations (PR)  can have in the marketing mix. During this time, I have also served as a board member for our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Ozaukee County, a cause I feel passionate about — helping to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter.

One of my passions is bringing together businesses with charities to form long-term partnerships, a winning equation when values and culture are aligned with marketing goals. Businesses that practice social responsibility generally have the goodwill of the public because they are perceived as companies who care, are accountable to a wide array of interests beyond pure profit, and are contributing in ways for the social good.

Big companies often do a great job making their philanthropy purpose-driven, something small brands sometimes overlook. This involves taking stock of your company’s values, products and offerings, then identifying the social needs and opportunities in your community aligned with your business and purpose. You are likely to find several local charities making a difference in these areas. Take some time to find the non-profit that’s the right fit for your business. Then, work collaboratively to develop a program that helps elevate support for or raise funds for the cause, engages your employees and customers, is memorable and sustainable for the long-term.

Without a doubt, the dynamics shaping business and non-profit sector relationships are changing. Funders (business sponsors, cause marketing partners, civic organizations and foundations) are demanding greater accountability and ROI, proof that the program funded is delivering on its goals and making a meaningful, demonstrable impact. In tandem, charities are facing unprecedented competition for funds and a problem differentiating their need or program from so many others in the community.

We are all operating in a tumultuous period of change and demand for greater accountability: in government, business, and in the non-profit world. The Great Recession has spawned a populist movement unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1930s. All of this is occurring at a time when trust in all institutions is fading.

In this environment, businesses and charities that come together for the greater good have a pivotal opportunity to bring about real change, to transform the ways they bring their resources to bear to solve meaningful community and societal problems. We must be innovative, nimble and ambitious in our social agenda. Together, we can be better.

The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.

About Mary Brophy

Mary has held leadership positions at the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman Worldwide, Cramer-Krasselt, Jacobson Rost and other leading agencies. Her background includes advising CEO-level executives on a variety of crisis communications and reputational issues.