Sunday, September 30, 2007

The great CSR con

The Economist recently reviewed Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism in which he argues that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a ‘dangerous diversion that is undermining democracy’. The gist of Reich’s argument is that corporations will claim to be socially responsible for actions that are of benefit to their ‘bottom line’ and that, ultimately, profits will always win over altruism as a motivation for anything they do.

To illustrate – as long as people are happy to consume Golden Munchie Burgers, the company that produces them will continue to wipe out areas of rainforest the size of Warwickshire on a weekly basis to produce grazing land for methane-producing cattle in order to ensure a steady supply of beef (and other derivatives).

But as soon as consumers get wind of the impact that Golden Munchie Global Corp are having on the environment, they might not be so keen to keep munching. Indeed they might even regard the act of boycotting Golden Munchie Burger Bars as a personal stand towards helping the environment. When this point is reached – and Golden Munchie find themselves selling fewer burgers – this is the time to start convincing the consumer that the company really does care about the environment.

This is achieved by having a visible and credible CSR policy in place so that consumers can continue to munch without guilt – or even believe that in some way they are helping the environment by buying more Golden Munchie Burgers.

So why is this undermining democracy? According to the article, Reich gives two reasons.

Firstly, if the public thinks that corporations are being socially responsible, they will put less pressure on governments to do something about issues of social concern - the environment, health, wealth, education or whatever cause needs to be addressed. There will be less perceived need by voters for radical political action.

Secondly, the concept of CSR encourages politicians themselves to ‘score points’ by criticising socially irresponsible corporations, rather than take action, i.e. pass laws, to force corporations to toe the line.

Rather than present CSR as a form of enlightened self-interest – or, in a Kantian sense, an act of public duty – this argument points to CSR as an ideological sleight-of-hand. By giving the appearance of acting in the interests of society, corporations are able to justify the free-market conditions in which they operate and avoid political intervention that might get in the way of maximising profits.

This is an interesting twist on Milton Friedman’s original argument that the only social responsibility that business has is to increase profits. Friedman’s influence on Thatcher - and all that followed, and continues to follow in today’s political environment! – suggests that the free market economy is still number one in the list of solutions to all the world’s problems. And if the free market depends on the continued willingness by consumers with a conscience to munch burgers, then CSR is clearly the way forward.

Filed under:
CSR     The Economist     Robert Reich     environment    democracy    Milton Friedman    free market

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Two reasons to smile…

I wasn’t sure at first whether to waste cyberspace drawing attention to this recent Daily Mail item on ‘trendy Mickey Mouse degrees’, which inevitably includes reference to Media Studies. I’ve already commented on media paranoia about courses that put them under a microscope and on individuals who trot out the usual stereotypes about Media Studies.

However I had to smile at the photo caption ‘More students are receiving first class degrees under the Labour government’. Could it really be that voting Labour makes your kids brighter? This reflects a similar view of causality as Boris Johnson’s famous claim that 'voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3'.

More cause to smile was an email I received today from a senior manager of one of Britain’s top television companies about three UCE Media Studies students who have been on work placement in different departments of that company. I quote: ‘each manager was extremely impressed and reported that they would have no hesitation in employing them right now’.

Media Studies students impress media bosses. Hmm - now there's a headline for the Daily Mail.

Filed under:
Daily Mail     Media Studies     UCE     Boris Johnson

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Up-front media relations

Clarence Mitchell is the new PR representative for the embattled McCann family. Having worked with them closely as head of media monitoring for the Cabinet Office, the former BBC reporter announced to assembled journalists in the McCann’s home village of Rothley that he was giving up his role as a civil servant to work full-time for the couple.

As the supertanker of public opinion appears to be slowly turning to the idea that Kate and Gerry McCann might in some hapless way be responsible for the death of their daughter Madeleine, Mitchell’s announcement conveyed two strong messages:

1) He is wholly convinced of their innocence, to the extent that he has given up his job to support them, and
2) The media should remain focused on the need to find Madeleine, who he believes is still alive, and not to get distracted by speculation about her parents

Almost from the beginning of this sad story, commentators have noted the McCann’s own skills in media relations and their campaign to keep this as a high profile case in the news agenda. The formal announcement of a new media spokesman presents an interesting contrast to the usual tendency to keep the ‘PR process’ hidden from the public.

The strategic thinking here is that it is better to be up-front about having a PR spokesman (and one who is himself relatively ‘high profile’), than to be accused of attempting to influence the media agenda through behind-the-scenes manipulation or spin.

From a PR perspective, the thin silver lining in this dark and cloudy affair is that the story reinforces an association in the mind of the public of PR with honesty. The essence of the McCanns’ case is that they have nothing to hide – including the fact that they are using PR techniques to get their message across.

Filed under:
Clarence Mitchell     Madeleine McCann     media relations