In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, almost any attempt to provide context for the attacks was interpreted as an attempt to mitigate the actions of the attackers. But one can examine the reasons for widespread mistrust of American influence—and American corporations—without excusing the horrific actions of Osama bin Laden’s followers and without coming to the simple-minded conclusion that those who resent America are evil people who envy us our freedom.
Less than a week after the attacks, this newsletter suggested that, “When it comes to their hatred of America, our enemies are motivated not only by their bitterness over what they see as American political imperialism—particularly this country’s support of Israel—but also by their resentment of what they see as American cultural imperialism, represented by the ubiquity of American corporate influence in developed and developing countries.
“While the attention of the American public is understandably focused on the political and military response, the corporate response to the tragedy at the World Trade Center will be—in the long run—just as important. The military response will strike at the heart of the disease we know as terrorism. The corporate response can address some of the symptoms, and in so doing deprive those who despise this country of any sympathy or support….
“The nature of globalization, the nature of the relationship between U.S. companies and the societies where they conduct business, has to change. Exclusion and exploitation can no longer be part of the equation. The new globalization must be inclusive, in every sense. It must respect the dignity of workers and consumers and communities, in developing countries as well as in those closer to home. It must be a unifying force, not a divisive one.”
It was heartening to see this theme taken up by the political establishment overseas (although not, to this point) in the United States. Addressing the Labour Party conference less than a month after the bombings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his case for a kinder, gentler brand of globalization.
“I realize why people protest against globalization,” Blair told conference attendees in Brighton. “We watch aspects of it with trepidation. We feel powerless, as if we were now pushed to and fro by forces far beyond our control…. The demonstrators are right to say there's injustice, poverty, environmental degradation. But the problem is not there's too much of it; on the contrary there's too little of it. The issue is not how to stop globalization. The issue is how we use the power of community to combine it with justice.
“If globalization works only for the benefit of the few, then it will fail and will deserve to fail. But if we follow the principles that have served us so well at home—that power, wealth and opportunity must be in the hands of the many, not the few—if we make that our guiding light for the global economy, then it will be a force for good and an international movement that we should take pride in leading. Because the alternative to globalization is isolation.”
It is even more heartening to see the same theme taken up by leaders of the public relations industry, gathered in San Francisco last week for the ICCO Global Summit. In a speech welcoming delegates from more than a dozen countries, ICCO president and chairman of Ketchum David Drobis made it clear that the events of September 11 presented the public relations industry with a challenge and an opportunity.
“The events of September 11 opened up a whole new world for many of us and our clients—a complicated, not fully understood media world and a world of consumer opinion that is unclear and ill-defined,” Drobis suggested. “The very nature of globalization is being questioned at an even greater level than it was before September 11.But I believe was have an opportunity to ensure that the positive forces of globalization continue and, more importantly, that the benefits of globalization are shared by many, and not just a fortunate few. In this way we can help make capitalism work in a moral as well as a business context.”
Drobis acknowledged that with clients cutting costs, the initial impact of the terrorist attacks on the public relations has been negative, and that many agency leaders were still considering how to respond to the changing environment and changing client needs and priorities. “But, in many respects, these are minor adjustments that taken alone fail to address the much larger picture.”
That larger picture, Drobis said, would involve a redefinition of the purpose of public relations.
“For many years one term has seemed to define the purpose of our industry: ‘relationship building.’ By working with our clients to build relationships with stakeholders and audiences—whether they’re customers, government or employees—we help influence opinions and perceptions that, combined with other activities, help our clients achieve their business objectives.
“The problem with ‘relationship building’ in today’s context is that it isn’t enough. For a relationship to be meaningful it has to be founded on mutual trust and understanding. Moreover, ‘relationship building,’ as a term and as a concept, falls short when the situational dynamic is one of acrimony, miscommunication and conflict.”
Globalization was plagued by acrimony, miscommunication and conflict long before September 11, with protests against the perceived architects of globalization taking place in Seattle and Genoa and Prague. “Now, it is in even greater jeopardy,” Drobis says, “with many respected observers suggesting that globalization may, in fact, be in its dying days.
In a recent article in the Financial Times, for example, Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen Roach advanced the idea that disruption to the international flow of goods and services amounts to a “terrorist tax” that will significantly raise the costs of doing business for multinationals and “may bring about the demise of globalization.”
Drobis says he doesn’t buy Roach’s negative perspective, and he doesn’t agree with those who see the impact of globalization as primarily negative. He quotes Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “The cliché that markets always make the rich richer and the poor poorer is simply not true. Globalization, for example, has improved the lot of hundreds of millions of poor people around the world. Economic gaps have diminished in part because of global markets. No poor country, meanwhile, has ever become rich by isolating itself from global markets.”
Given the overwhelming evidence that globalization has benefited developing countries—providing citizens with access to better-paying jobs and better, more affordable products and services—Drobis attributes widespread criticism of the phenomenon to miscommunications. “There is widespread apathy and even mistrust about globalization because the public and private sectors have done such a poor job communicating the benefits, being transparent about their activities, and building important alliances,” he says.
That points the way to an important role for public relations: building confidence in globalization.
“Because globalization has largely been a failure of communications, there are no people better suited in the world to tackle this problem than the people in our profession,” says Drobis. “Moving from a mindset of relationship-building to confidence-building, we alone have the experience and expertise to help unravel the tangled web of messages and misperceptions, dissolve confusion and mistrust, and build mutual confidence among groups so that globalization can reach its full potential.”
Drobis believes public relations can provide valuable service to three organizations involved in globalization: corporations, non-governmental organizations, and international institutions.
To help corporations communicate the benefits of globalization, public relations people must help them overcome the assertion that “international capitalism is nothing more than a byword for oppression, exploitation and injustice by rapacious multinationals… [that] companies will stop at nothing to maximize profits even if it means degrading the environment, abusing workers, exploiting third-world markets and committing a host of other sins.
“These are harsh and unfair claims,” says Drobis. “The problem is that companies have done little to disprove these allegations. The reality is that today’s leading and enlightened corporations have a winning management philosophy, one that recognizes that commercial success is driven by respect for ethical values, people, communities and the physical and social environment. This 21st century management mindset recognizes that companies must take into consideration a broad group of stakeholders as they pursue their business goals globally, that good corporate citizenship is not a cost of doing business, but rather a driver of business success.”
There is also a role for public relations in working with NGOs, which can provide companies with a valuable “seal of approval” for their corporate social responsibility activity.
Drobis cites a recent Financial Times report which notes: “A new type of relationship is emerging between companies and NGOs, one where NGOs act as certification bodies, verifying, and in many cases permitting the use of their logos, showing that products and services are being produced in socially responsible and environmentally friendly ways.”
But NGOs are also facing unprecedented communications challenges. The NGO movement is splintered—there are some 30,000 international NGOs—and each group has its own agenda.
“Many of these groups are responsible for turning important economic conferences into water-cannon catastrophes,” says Drobis. “And that’s what is worrying the moderate, clear-thinking NGOs, many of which have valid complaints about pressing social and economic issues related to globalization. These groups differ in many important respects from their more extreme, slogan-based counterparts. Most importantly, they believe in solutions, not slogans.”
Finally, Drobis says, public relations professionals need to work with international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. These organizations, The Economist noted recently, “represent the global economy [and] are far more reviled than they are admired; the best they can expect from opinion at large is grudging acceptance.”
Says Drobis, “These institutions are in desperate need of communications counsel at every level. Often wrongly perceived as undemocratic, but fairly perceived as non-transparent, most of these international bodies are in the midst of a monumental public-relations crisis.
“One could argue that all of these institutions need serious branding so that they project values and emotional attributes that resonate with audiences. Just as countries have begun to brand themselves to attract investment, tourism and other desirables, so too should the international institutions consider how to market themselves in ways that dispel misperceptions and advance their agendas. Here again, the private sector and public relations can serve an important role.”
If public relations professionals are able to rise to the challenge presented by the post-September 11 world, they can advance the discipline to new heights, says Drobis.
“The recent changes in our world have led us to perhaps the most pivotal moment in the history of our profession. We have the opportunity to elevate public relations to heights that would have seemed impossible in years past. To be sure, the business climate is daunting. But I believe in the resiliency of people, societies and business to overcome adversity. Recovery will come, probably sooner than we expect, and with it a chance for public relations to shine like never before.”