“The Responsible Century?” was published by Burson-Marsteller, the world’s largest public relations company and a leader in corporate responsibility communication, in conjunction with The Prince of Wales Business Leaders’ Forum. The collaboration with the international NGO, and resulting study, comes as Burson-Marstellar (BM) introduces a new London-based corporate social responsibility unit.

“Nowadays, the image of a company, its corporate identity, has become fundamentally important,” said one French legislator quoted in the study, highlighting a new European sensitivity to CSR. “An organization has to be transparent and well behaved; just having a good quality product is not sufficient anymore.”

The study itself was conducted by Research International, an independent company with broad experience in opinion surveys, and consisted of interviews with more than 100 randomly selected opinion leaders. Those interviewed included media representatives, institutional investors, legislators, government regulators, and non-government organizations, from France, Germany, and the U.K.

Participants in the survey were asked to rank thirty companies on the basis of their CSR performance and respond to a variety of questions defining recent trends in corporate responsibility. The results complement recent studies reflecting consumer opinions by looking at the attitudes of those who directly and publicly punish or reward corporate performance in social responsibility.

The survey highlights rising public expectations of what constitutes good corporate practice in Europe. Among the key findings, a stunning 89 percent of those surveyed felt that corporate responsibility will continue to be important in their assessment of companies. A full 64 percent “strongly agreed” that the health of a company’s reputation will affect their own decisions as public leaders regarding that company.

The BM survey clearly demonstrates that the corporate social responsibility agenda is not only growing in importance in Europe, but that significant shifts in emphasis are occurring. For instance, those surveyed generally felt that charitable giving by companies, while still commendable, is not sufficiently important on its own. In fact, unless a more holistic CSR policy is in place, charitable giving is often viewed with suspicion.

“Support for charitable causes is often used as a smokescreen more than anything else,” said the leader of a British NGO quoted in the study. “For example, ‘We’re manufacturing lots of things that kill lots of people, but we built three scout huts last year.'”

This skepticism about charitable giving is part of a larger trend away from “hard issues,” traditional concerns that are easy to quantify like environmental performance, toward “soft issues.” These include more delicate measures of corporate culture such as treatment of employees, commitment to local communities, and ethical business conduct. As soft issues grow in importance, pressure will increase to develop metrics for performance on these issues.

One of the dominant findings of the BM study, and another indication of the trend toward soft issues, was that a company’s relationship with its employees was considered the single most important factor in CSR. The report suggests that rapid technological change and economic globalization have sensitized opinion leaders to this issue.

“For me, the satisfaction of employees and customers stand very close together,” said an institutional investor in Germany. “I only get good work out of employees when they feel that they are taken seriously, when they are informed and take part in what is happening in the company.”

The BM report is a wake-up call for European companies regarding the growing range of factors that together contribute to corporate reputation and influence economic success. As the concerns and priorities of opinion leaders move toward more comprehensive definitions of CSR, companies will ignore public expectations at their peril.