In the latest issue of Ethical Corporation online, Lisa Roner’s article, Corporate Responsibility and Public Relations, discusses the problem areas in PR and corporate responsibility and how these two functions can be made to work together.
The article identifies the following as problem areas for public relations vis-୶is corporate responsibility issues:
- There is some public distrust for PR firms that have made ethical missteps in their own dealings and in behalf of clients.
- PR messages on corporate responsibility are perceived as merely spin and damage control, high on production values and lacking substance and action.
- Companies that employ PR firms to handle aspects of corporate responsibility may be perceived as not serious enough about it to assign the function internally.
Roner believes that PR firms need to “clean up their own ethics” to be credible in delivering messages on corporate responsibility for their clients. She mentions “sordid pasts” of some PR companies:
- The Center for Media and Democracy tells on Hill & Knowlton as having “a long history of representing all sorts of nefarious polluting industries and repressive third-world regimes.” The PR agency was widely criticized for misleading video news releases designed to drum up support for the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
- Ketchum’s advertisements for Brown and Williamson and RJ Reynolds denied the link between smoking and heart and lung disease. Their crisis management plan for Clorox recommended labeling environmental critics as “terrorists.” While working with Dow Chemical, they encouraged scientists to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s report on the health hazards of highly toxic dioxins.
- Ketchum and Omnicom were criticized last year for producing fake news videos promoting the Bush administration’s prescription drug plan.
- Omnicom’s Fleishman-Hillard was accused by the Los Angeles city controller of over-billing the city for its services.
Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable development for DuPont, is reported saying that companies should select a PR partner consistent with its own objectives, taking into account the PR firm’s past actions and clients. Roner cites advice given by the director of corporate responsibility of a major technology company to switch PR firms when a PR group has associations in direct conflict with the company’s or the individual’s values.
The author acknowledges, though, that many large PR firms around the world have launched dedicated corporate responsibility practices, among them, Burson-Marsteller, Edelman and APCO.
It seems that if PR firms are serious in selling substance, they themselves need to be careful in choosing their clients. Roner cites Rittenhouse saying that unless a client company’s leadership integrates corporate responsibility concepts into the company’s operations, its PR firm will only be helping create a “bluewash.”
“Bluewash,” according to the author, is a term “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.”
Bennett Freeman, senior counselor for corporate responsibility at Burson-Marsteller and former US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, is cited as saying that in reconciling PR with corporate responsibility, words and actions need to be aligned.
Roner presents advice from Rittenhouse on how public relations and corporate responsibility can be made to work together.
Rittenhouse believes that a PR firm with the right people given the right training can help a client company develop and communicate key corporate responsibility messages internally and externally. Internally, a PR firm with a good corporate responsibility background can help the client company create a strong communication plan to ensure that employees understand the company commitments and how their work relates to these. Externally, the PR firm can create a communication plan to help build the corporate reputation among stakeholders.
In conclusion, Roner cites Freeman saying that “corporate responsibility is really about making and delivering on substantive policy and business commitments communicated substantively and credibly.”
In the end, it all boils down, again, to accountability. PR firms need to be accountable for their own words and actions as well as for their words and actions in behalf of clients. This means having to be vigilant in their own processes as well as in choosing companies to work with. Only then can they reap the credibility on which their existence depends.