Corporate Responsibility and Public Relations

Corporate Responsibility and Public Relations

By their own assessment, public relations companies are focused primarily on delivering tailored messages for their clients.

But when it comes to managing corporate responsibility programs, some critics argue the message can ring hollow because of PR firms' own missteps on ethics and the questionable cast of characters that often grace their clientele rosters, especially if the message lacks substance and action to back it up.

Stakeholder groups, such as non-governmental organizations and the press, are increasingly questioning how corporate responsibility is being incorporated into company strategies and practices. This is, at least in part, because many early efforts to communicate on corporate responsibility have been high on production value and low on substance.

Many would argue that is simply the nature of PR communications. It is a profession, one observer notes, preoccupied with symbolism, imagery and perception rather than substance.

But many large PR firms, including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman and APCO, have launched dedicated corporate responsibility practices on both sides of the Atlantic. And some are led by well-known names in corporate responsibility circles.

So, are PR companies a good fit for the complex and critical corporate responsibility strategy development needed by today’s corporations? Or, in the hands of PR firms, does corporate responsibility become little more than reactive spin and damage control in response to existing practices?

A Good Name

The stakes are high. Reputation is a company’s key asset. And although it must be constantly earned, it can be lost in a fleeting moment.

Just ask companies such as Nike and Gap, which are fighting to rebuild their corporate reputations since sweatshop allegations threw the companies into reputational crises.

In this new era of scrutiny, corporate reputation and corporate responsibility are inseparable, says Bennett Freeman, senior counselor for corporate responsibility at Burson-Marsteller and former US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

Freeman, whose corporate responsibility roots run deep, says that, at a time when trust in business remains low, real commitment and performance matter most -- and only substance sells. Although most management and communications professionals understand the potential impact of corporate responsibility issues on company reputation, not all are comfortable with integrating these issues into their communications strategies, he says.

As the number of scandals and investigations continues to rise, so too have questions about the degree to which corporate responsibility is being incorporated into companies’ strategies and practices.

One executive says companies must manage their brands, credibility and reputation -- and that’s why many times the responsibility falls on public relations. But, as is commonly heard in PR circles, you cannot communicate yourself out of something you behaved yourself into. Protection of your reputation hinges on what you do, not what you say.

If the intention of the leadership is not to integrate corporate responsibility concepts into how a company chooses to operate, then a PR firm is only helping to create "bluewash," says Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable development for DuPont. (The term “bluewash” was coined by campaigning NGOs in recent years to describe their views on how companies were using associations with the United Nations, via its various agencies, to discuss some of their corporate social responsibility work.)

Sordid Pasts

Some public distrust stems from the at-times unscrupulous behavior of the PR firms themselves, both in their own dealings and on behalf of their clients.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit PR watchdog, the Hill and Knowlton agency “has a long history of representing all sorts of nefarious polluting industries and repressive third-world regimes.”

The company received broad criticism for a series of what many called misleading video news releases produced for the Kuwaiti government in 1990. The videos, which included claims of atrocities committed by then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, were designed to drum up support for the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Other firms have also had their share of unsavory dealings. In the 1970s and 1980s, PR firm Ketchum worked for tobacco companies Brown and Williamson and RJ Reynolds on advertising that denied the link between smoking and heart and lung disease. And it stirred attention again in the early 1990s, when its crisis management plan prepared for household-products maker Clorox recommended labeling environmental critics as “terrorists” and worked with Dow Chemical to encourage scientists to challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency’s report on the health hazards of dioxins, now acknowledged to be a highly toxic class of chemical.

Omnicomm and Ketchum were also criticized by the General Accounting Office last year for producing fake news videos promoting the Bush administration’s prescription drug plan.

Fleishman-Hillard, owned by advertising giant Omnicom, found trouble all on its own when it wound up in a scandal in which the Los Angeles city controller accused the company, in conjunction with a former executive, of over-billing the city for its services.

PR firms’ sometimes questionable associations, some experts say, undermine their qualifications for advising other companies on corporate responsibility. In fact, the director of corporate responsibility for a major technology company says, when a PR group has such associations, in direct conflict with your company’s and/or personal values, it is a time to switch firms.

Guilt by Association

Rittenhouse believes companies should consider a PR firm’s past actions and clients when selecting a PR partner. Suppliers must be consistent with a company’s own objectives and avoid creating images not supported by reality, she says, or they will help breed media and NGO suspicion.

Working with PR firms on corporate responsibility issues has some drawbacks, several experts say. “Corporate responsibility,” they argue, is frequently mere PR designed to reassure the public, when in reality very little has changed.

External audiences may believe that by employing a PR firm to handle various aspects of corporate responsibility companies show they do not care enough about the function to assign it internally or that the effort is expected to provide little more than positive spin for the company, says Dawn Fenton, an industry consultant.

And from an internal perspective, Fenton says, a PR firm cannot understand the corporate culture and business-related corporate responsibility considerations as well as someone within the group, risking sending the message internally that senior management does not consider corporate responsibility important enough to integrate within the business.

Making it Work

Experts say many firms are in a reactive mode and need to start seeing corporate responsibility as something positive for both their firms and wider society by developing a more rigorous, proactive agenda.

Wal-Mart’s recent corporate image campaign is a good example of such a reactive mistake, many analysts say. The “Wal-Mart is working for everyone” campaign, managed by Hill and Knowlton, has stirred up more critics than it has silenced, some crisis communications experts say, by inadvertently drawing attention to the company’s less-than-stellar recent public relations track record.

In fact, some analysts say corporate spin may be on its last legs. Because of transparency, they say, it has become more difficult and the messaging needs to correspond more closely to the simple truth.

But given the right people, with the right training, a PR firm can be useful in helping a company develop and communicate key messages, both internally and externally, says Rittenhouse. She says a firm that has a good background in corporate responsibility can help create a strong communications plan, so that employees understand the company commitments and how their actions relate to them.

Once the base has been laid, Rittenhouse advises, a PR firm can create a communications plan for external stakeholders to help build the corporate reputation. A good communications plan, done with a company that is integrating corporate responsibility into its business management, can be a good influence, she says.

Freeman agrees and says that his work with clients focuses on policy commitments, issues management and stakeholder relations, and integrates communications strategies and tactics with their objectives in those areas.

“Stakeholders are satisfied only by performance that is communicated substantively and credibly,” Freeman says. Aligning actions and words is essential to reconciling PR and corporate responsibility in a positive way, he stresses, whether in the interest of safeguarding corporate reputations or advancing corporate responsibility goals.

Delineating CR from PR

Fenton believes PR firms can add value to a company’s corporate responsibility efforts through a direct relationship with the communications department that spells out a clear delineation between the PR firm’s responsibility for communicating the outcome of corporate responsibility efforts (in addition to other corporate messages) and the responsibility for the planning and implementation of activities and initiatives.

Fenton has warned companies to keep corporate responsibility policies and reports a safe distance from the PR department, in order to keep them spin-free. Experts agree that corporate responsibility should be about building standards rather than marketing tools, but they also warn that without PR the material may be so dry that the momentum for change will be lost.

So messaging, they say, must give way to engaging in two-way relationships that transform public relations into public-relationship-building. Dan Tapscott, chief executive of New Paradigm Learning, a consultancy, says PR needs to be much better integrated with other aspects of the business.

“In the age of transparency, strategy changes and PR and communications executives are perfectly positioned to have a seat at the table and help with this new historic challenge that’s arising,” Tapscott says, referring to corporate transparency.

Freeman agrees, saying he does see a role for PR companies in helping corporations meet the transparency challenge, and that communicating with stakeholders is an important part of the process. But he stresses that corporate responsibility is really about making and delivering on substantive policy and business commitments communicated substantively and credibly.

First, however, it appears PR firms may have to clean up their own ethics, since many corporate buyers seem to believe that a messenger with internal issues of its own may not be best placed to deliver a credible message.

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This article has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation. It was first published in the September 2005 issue of that publication.