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Beth Shiroishi, vice president of sustainability and philanthropy at AT&T Inc., rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange Thursday after the company was ranked No. 1 on CR Magazine’s “100 Best Corporate Citizens” list [PDF]. The bell capped off the third annual Corporate Responsibility Forum, co-hosted by the Corporate Responsibility Officer’s Association, NYSE Euronext, and CR Magazine publisher SharedXpertise.

The daylong forum, “Our Corporations in Our Communities,” brought together representatives from companies on the list, now in its 14th year, as well as leaders in the field of corporate responsibility.

CR uses publicly available information to rank companies based on seven categories: environment, climate change, employee relations, human rights, governance, finance, and philanthropy.

Business success is an important factor. “If you don’t have profits, you’re not going to be around next year to be corporately responsible,” CR Magazine editor-in-chief Dirk Olin said ahead of announcing the 2013 honorees. But the list’s ranking committee assigns the most weight, 19.5 percent, to environmental impact and employee relations.

“To be on this list, by definition you have had an extraordinary year of capitalist evolution,” said Olin.

Dallas-based communications giant AT&T ranked 33rd on last year’s CR list [PDF], when Bristol-Myers Squibb took top honors. BMS fell to number three on the most recent list, but seven of the top 10 rose in this year’s ranking, including Merck & Co. Inc., which jumped to number eight after finishing 46th in 2012.

AT&T’s Shiroishi attributes the company’s ranking to its strong financial performance and the company’s improved transparency. “Last year we really revamped our external communications and website to make information—some of which was already public—easier to find,” says Shiroishi.

A big part of her job is determining what external stakeholders value most. One set of stakeholders may stress what the company is doing to improve website access for people with disabilities, she says, while another is more concerned with consumer protections and data privacy. “Every group is so different, and that’s actually one of the challenges.”

As a company, the more you know about the business, the better you can run it. But Shiroishi says that deciding how to present the information to the external world isn’t always easy. “What you talk about and how you put that information out externally is obviously a balance, because what you want to do is be transparent, but also provide the right context.”

Sometimes data, without the appropriate context, can lead stakeholders to the wrong conclusions. One of the strengths of this particular survey, in Shiroishi’s view, is that it takes into account a range of sustainability measures, instead of just one.

“Not just environment, or just human rights, or just labor,” she says, “but really looking across the spectrum to get a true, broad understanding of what it means to be a corporate citizen.”

Newark, NJ’s mayor, Cory Booker, delivered the keynote address, encouraging corporate leaders to recognize their role in building communities. He spoke of Newark’s reliance on the corporate community in mounting its recovery from a 60-year period of population and business exodus.

Although many credit Booker alone for the turnaround, he said it never would have been possible had people with different viewpoints not come together. “The first principle of collective problem solving,” said Booker, “is to bury your ego and find common ground.”

When Booker took office six years ago, he looked to local corporations like Prudential Financial Inc. for help—not in the form of donations, but expertise. Businesses loaned him human resources and investment experts to help clean up the city. “The businesses knew more about investing than I did,” he pointed out.

“This kind of public-private partnership is incredible,” said Booker, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. And in his view, if communities are going to flourish, they’ll need more of these kinds of arrangements. “Theses are not a luxury, but a necessity,” he said. “Many communities in America are struggling,” noted Booker, “and they’re struggling needlessly.”

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