Paul Holmes 10 Jan 2011 // 2:07PM GMT
Is there a revolving door between the healthcare activist world and corporate public relations, and if so is it a problem? That’s not necessarily a new question, but it is one that is being raised again following the news that food and infant formula giant Nestle has appointed Janet Voûte, former chief executive of the World Heart Federation, as its global vice president for public affairs. Based on an article at the World Public Health Nutrition Association website, there’s a visceral reaction in the activist community to what is seen as a “defection” or “sell out.” Patti Rundall of the International Baby Food Action Network describes herself as “very disturbed, while not altogether surprised,” by the move, while the tone of association executives makes it clear they are not comfortable with the move. It’s worth pointing out that the door revolves both ways: indeed, Voûte was a management consultant before taking up her WHF role. And corporations rarely complain when their executives move to the nonprofit sector. But the big issue, it seems to me, is the role these individuals play in the corporate realm after making the move. If an individual has been hired for his or her perceived “credibility” or public relations value as a “convert” to the corporate cause, and if the person essentially functions as a shill for the company, parroting the company line, then I would agree that the revolving door is a problem. I’d also suggest that the company is getting pretty poor value for what is presumably a relatively high salary. If, on the other hand, the individual has been brought in because he or she is prepared to challenge existing management and corporate practices, and engage in honest conversation with critics—who might trust the new person more than they would trust a long-serving corporate executive—then it seems to me that there’s only upside. And it seems to me the company will also benefit from an outside perspective that will help it avoid public relations missteps. In the absence of any empirical study about what happens to such individuals when they switch sides, I guess the question for Nestle’s critics is whether they trust Voûte to act ethically and responsibly in her new role—and whether they believe the company is capable of change.