How can a business develop sustainable societal relationships in a world that is often described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? While public expectations of companies are complicated and continuously changing, there are clear underlying trends in modern society that shape this relationship. Understanding these trends allows a company to develop the capability of proactively managing societal relationships. The findings of the study are especially relevant for industries that visibly operate in the public space and should anticipate societal resistance.

This paper first describes the societal trends that shaped the way people and organizations have interacted since the Second World War. In this period increasing environmental and social awareness and assertiveness developed along three evolutionary paths:

  • active public discourse that continuously pushes the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable and desirable, with increasing focus on human values and space for the individual;

  • industry sectors and international organizations that try to preempt new societal expectations with voluntary guidelines and self-regulation; and

  • governments that formalize important and matured parts of the public discourse and voluntary guidelines in laws and regulations.

Secondly, the authors adopt a practical model to describe how companies have struggled to keep up with this continuously evolving and dynamic societal landscape due to lack of adaptation. An increasingly defensive and reactive business approach to societal pressure has led to a low point in trust from stakeholders. To regain trust and their social license to operate companies need to take a more proactive approach to societal relationships, which require both organizational and cultural change.

Finally, the authors take the example from the safety journey, where the oil and gas industry has been very successful in demonstrating that excellence in safety is both a moral obligation and good for the bottom line. The same applies to excellence in societal relationships. Using the evolutionary model of safety culture with its maturity ladder as analogue, the authors provide a practical and value-driven framework to guide companies on their organizational and cultural change journey towards effective societal relationship management.

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