Leonard Bernstein loved recalling the cynical attitude of his father to his young son's desire to become a musician. Bernstein Senior had hoped his “Lenny” would be drawn to the safety of the family's beauty parlour
supply business and dismissed music as the preserve of Jewish “klezmers.” Leonard Bernstein described this term as meaning “something a little bit better than a beggar.” Klezmers, he said, were fiddle-players who wandered from one Bar Mitzvah or wedding to the next, picking up a few kopeks here and there. For the young Bernstein's parents, the musical profession lacked nobility.
In the most puritan CSR circles, the public relations industry is too easily characterised as the klezmer at the wedding. Wrongly so, but it's fair to say that the PR world was sluggish to respond proactively to the seismic business changes that occurred with the advent of corporate responsibility and sustainability in the 1990s. With notable exceptions, many communications agencies chose not to lead the sea change that was occurring around them. In turn, some PR companies themselves became targets, confirming the maxim that “if you're not at the table, you're on the menu.:
For all the creativity the industry deployed in other disciplines, when it came to CSR safe and conservative
strategies were chosen in favour of unthinkable bold iconic gestures. Perhaps this caution was in part a fear of the unknown, and relatively few PR professionals attempted to become champions of the global CSR community. NGOs were seen as fodder to lend credibility to unambitious initiatives. CSR itself was a last minute bolt-on designed to add a new angle to a dry story or product. Too often, “crisis management” got in the way of long term planning. Yet with more long term planning there would have been fewer crises to manage. PR was cast in the role of business friend, leaving the criticism to those outside the tent, notably NGOs. Its most useful role might have been that of “critical friend,” the role many of the more moderate NGOs now play themselves.
To be fair, large multinational PR agencies face many challenges, some easier to overcome than others. Any global agency thinking seriously about CSR must grapple with big questions. Should there be no-go client areas? If we refuse to work on something, what of the right to a fair hearing? Is it not through high profile public debate that better outcomes are reached and if there is no counter balance to the prevailing wind (be it pro or anti business) how can anyone decide who is right?
Is it the role of a PR firm to look beyond its own environmental footprint, accounting for the footprint caused by campaigns it devises? How does the industry adapt to entirely new client conflicts that have emerged as a result of globalised issues? Today, the commercial battle lines are no longer drawn simply around which product offers better
value than another. Themes like climate change, supply chain ethics and health have placed seemingly unrelated brands on a green and ethical collision course. With companies racing each other to top environmental rankings and ethical investment indices, a supermarket chain is competing with a mobile phone operator or oil company as much as with its direct competitor.
The industry as a whole has not yet developed an overall point of view on these complex challenges. To become a credible voice at the table we must step up our collective response. We are well down the path of tackling the easy part of the agenda—reducing our carbon footprint, providing our pro bono expertise to the non profit sector and giving clients the best advice on how to maximise the communications potential of their CSR efforts. Increasingly our clients will demand the same standards from us that they demand from any other supplier—concrete proof that responsibility is as deeply interwoven in our business practices as it is in theirs. At Weber Shandwick we are fortunate to have a leadership and culture well attuned to these issues but there is much more to be done.
Our industry has huge power. It engages daily with key decision makers and importantly, budget holders who determine the face of corporate behaviour. They are, sometimes unknowingly, some of the influencers who
will determine what our planet will be like in twenty years time. The challenge for PR firms is to devise, mobilise and activate ever-bolder communications strategies that are in keeping with the urgency of global challenges. We must prove the cynics wrong by deploying our power evermore boldly, creatively and responsibly. The young Leonard Bernstein rejected the safety of the family beauty supply business and chose music, of the noblest kind. The world was a better place for it. I know from personal experience that PR is a noble profession. But as an industry we need to do much more to prove it.
EH: This is an excellent question to wrap up our discussion. We see the role of public relations as helping communicate a company's CSR vision and initiatives by leveraging communications strategies and tactics that help enhance a company's corporate reputation. In doing so, we ensure that all key stakeholders are aware of a company's responsible business practices as it relates to their interests.
Whether encouraging employees to live the company's CSR values, enhancing local partnership in communities, or ensuring investors are aware of a company's focus on long-term sustainable value creation, public relations serves to broaden awareness of a company's CSR initiatives and amplify the impact and results of their CSR strategy.
PH: I'm concerned that we are talking about communicating CSR as if we mean telling people about CSR. But communicating means listening and engaging as well. Surely that's a major role for PR? Or are companies doing CSR in isolation, without listening or engaging?
EH: You are absolutely correct. Two way communications is critical and I think my response may have implied that (although not strongly enough) when I was speaking about enhancing partnerships in communities.
A huge part of a CSR communications strategy involves creating opportunities for a company to better engage with all of its stakeholders: local communities, employees, customers, investors, partners, etc. It is all about creating a truly open, transparent organization that listens twice as much as it speaks, that reports on its successes and shortcomings, and that reaches out to stakeholders in the spirit of constantly trying to do better.
BM: Of course you are right, it does mean listening and engaging. But pr firms are not seen as the right people to play that role, because people are suspicious of the motives the minute they see that the engagement has been “outsourced.” Too many PR CSR experts are reconstructed PR people—not the people in this discussion of course—who haven't actually worked on CR in the field, either for corporates or NGOs. Stakeholders see through them like glass. The best companies listen and engage for themselves. In outsourcing that process, they outsource their values, and it never really works.
JP: I agree completely that listening and engaging are critical to CSR success and that PR people should manage this. But to go one step further—and at the risk of recounting ancient history—when we established our PR/CSR firm it was also based on providing policy counsel by our affiliated experts in environment, diversity, philanthropy, etc.
AvB: CSR in essence is about doing business responsible. As I mentioned before, we work with that combining public affairs, CSR and marketing. What we do is to distinguish between the corporation at the one hand and the brands at the other. The corporation engages with a CSR outreach with society, political stakeholders, citizens. The brand communicates through marketing with consumers. In our practice we find ourselves more and more as a communication agency working together with advertising agencies. So I find myself as a public affairs professional in an interesting place.