It may be uncomfortable, but we must hide nothingMay 2009
Exposing your company to relentless public scrutiny is sometimes painful – but it’s worth it, says Julia King
Corporate responsibility proponents have always talked about the notion of a ‘licence to operate’, but the financial crisis has made it more obvious than ever that such trust is central to successful business – and that behaving responsibly is central to trust.
Every business sector needs the support of customers, suppliers and the community in all its forms, from local people to national governments and intergovernmental organizations. It’s about the big picture – whether the business is operating broadly in society’s interests – as well as detail such as trusting whether products and services fulfil their promises and give value for money.
The pharmaceuticals sector is well aware of this and my company, GlaxoSmithKline, wants to achieve higher levels of trust through stakeholders recognising that we run our business in a responsible way. First we are making some changes in the way we operate, but then we need to make sure people can see and understand what we are doing.
This is because transparency is one of the key building blocks of trust. Giving people the impression you are trying to hide something will fuel mistrust, so it’s important to be as open as possible. Reporting and other formal communications are part of that openness but there are other ways to provide transparency as well.
For example, the pharmaceutical industry has sometimes been accused of suppressing or manipulating the presentation of the results of clinical trials, and using ostensibly independent patient groups to promote our interests. Understanding these concerns, GSK will now ensure data from our clinical trials is published, whether it’s perceived to be positive or negative for our products, and we publish the payments we make to patient groups. We have also stopped all corporate political contributions, we limit payments to healthcare professionals and will be publishing what we pay them, to avoid compromising their independence.
We face particular transparency issues in our business. But companies in every sector need to demonstrate they can be trusted to do the right thing for society. Business cannot expect blind trust. We all need to show that we have nothing to hide, and there is only one way to do this – hide nothing unless it is commercially sensitive or is not sufficiently important to justify the substantial administrative costs of disclosure.
Transparency’s great if you’re looking in from the outside, but it can sometimes be uncomfortable if you’re the goldfish on the inside. But I think we have to accept that discomfort and recognise that improved trust and accountability results in better relationships with stakeholders.
Julia King is vice president, corporate responsibility, at GlaxoSmithKline
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