Are PR companies fundamentally unable to understand corporate responsibility?

We published our first issue of Ethical Corporation magazine eight years ago this week.

Here’s our first ever cover. We went for the shock factor back then!

It was pretty amateurish I must admit. But it got us started.

The day we printed it, Enron declared bankruptcy.

That turned out to be a useful event for the growth in concern about corporate ethics.

Since then, I’ve watched corporate social responsibility become corporate responsibility and recently, start to shift towards sustainable business.

The terminology all means pretty much the same thing in my book.

But the change in language use over the years has accompanied a shift towards CSR or whatever you want to call it, moving much more into the mainstream of business.

Still, despite this welcome sea change in how many companies view responsible business, the public relations industry continues to lag in many cases.

On the one hand you can’t blame the marketing side of communications. High profile mistakes scared off a lot of companies.

And the complexity of communicating the notion that ‘we’re 10% better than we used to be’, means selling sustainability within a limited communications space is extremely tough.

Green labels have proliferated. Many to the detriment of their users, with the odd exception.

So marketing CR is hard. But why still do the PR companies fail to grasp it?

Some tried to set up sustainability practices, but all of these are tiny.

Others tried to pretend it was a key part of what they do, but it’s obvious they just don’t grasp it.

I was at an event the other evening where this was painfully obvious.

Academics and corporate clients, poorly briefed and badly prepared, were rolled out to speak to a seasoned audience who, almost as one, were collectively rolling their eyes by half way through the evening at the simplistic clichéd platitudes put to them.

The PR company, meanwhile, had no clue this has happening, and continued to make solemn and utterly obvious statements to the audience about how they really saw CR as vital for clients. Clearly they didn’t understand that it means a bit more than basic marketing (which doesn’t work for CR) and sponsorship/philanthropy.

Their ‘report’ (awful marketing tosh) on the table in front of us all contradicted itself on its own cover, a true triumph in poorly thought through communications.

My theory is that this a cultural issue in PR companies. They do have some smart people in them (we all know effective PR can be very useful to companies), so its not an intelligence issue.

It must be because the senior people just don’t want to acknowledge that CR puts them outside their traditional comfort zone.

And so they persist in not hiring experienced people who will really challenge clients, and their own paradigm of business and society.

I can’t think of why else this would be the case.

Whilst those of us who have worked in CR for some time can get a good laugh out of the ineptitude of PR companies and their botched communication efforts, there is a serious point here.

Big PR firms, and their senior directors, have serious and considerable reach into big companies.

In many cases into areas the new sustainability knowledge has yet to penetrate.

They could do themselves, and their clients, a massive favour by understanding that they just don’t yet get what CR means at a top level, and doing something about it.

One attendee, talking about flexible morals still being a big problem in business, quoted Groucho Marx at the recent PR event, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

An apt description of the upper echelons in big, and many small, PR companies.

Surely time to wake up and smell the Rainforest Alliance certified coffee? Here’s to hoping.

Here’s a pubcast on the topic I taped yesterday.


  1. Linda Locke

    I agree with your conclusion. I think the weakness of PR firms (and they would disagree vehemently) is that they've built their success of poundage of clips, not actual change. I think in the long range the current PR firm model will not survive. There are lots of smart people in PR firms but the current model for measurement makes these firms unsustainable in the long run.

  2. Hi Toby, two issues with your comments here. First, while I agree with most of what you said, dumping on PR firms as a collective is a bit rich – yes, there are some shockingly backward agencies that are still catching up to CSR 1.0 but there are others that definitely get it. Secondly, you won't hear much about those agencies because the pursuit of sustainable business, for most clients, is not throwing a switch but hard, dogged embedding of new strategies, cultures and behaviours in their operating businesses – and this takes many years, usually with mistakes along the way. Staying low profile till change can be documented does not signal inaction or inability to understand – it's a prudent alternative to what some might describe as greenwashing.

  3. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your comments. The PR company that I mentioned first contacted me about CR issues 8 years ago.

    They haven't moved on since then. They will think its about reputation management via philanthropic gestures by companies.

    That speaks volumes to me.

    PR firms almost universally fail to train the younger employees they ask to call journalists on what CR is. That's one reason why writers find them such a pain.

    So at one of the biggest PR firms, nothing has changed in nearly a decade on how they approach CR. And 99% of the calls we get from PR firms are pushing stories that are really weak and hardly ever to do with core business. Now that might be the clients fault, but PR firms need to be a lot smarter about CR, that much is clear. Their clients will at some point start realising that they don't know much about it.



  4. Hi Toby,

    At an industry level, I'm saying "ouch" on your comments about the training of younger consultants who sell stories to media; about your feedback on weak stories that should be culled in an agency editorial process; and about the company that has not moved its position forward in 8 years.

    The first two, in particular, are matters I'll persoanlly pick up for discussion in our agency – they are wholly legitimate reflections and it's good to get that feedback. We can and should do better here and show more judgement about what we try to pitch. That's really helpful. Can I say that I think we do pretty well on this but it's given me a reason to go back and ask the questions.

    On your third substantive point, can I declare that I think I know the PR firm you're referring to. Yep, one of the world's largest and oldest. And I was a very frustrated contributor to the development of their first global "CSR" platform early this decade when I was working for them in Australia. The so-called "productization" was led by what I called their "Chicago School" of communications, matching Milton Friedman (free markets are exempt from the need to 'first do no harm' if that dilute shareholder value). Despire efforts of colleagues in Europe, and in the broader APAC region, we failed to move the focus much beyond philanthropy. I will drop you a private note as an observation on that process. [Much as I enjoy public conversations like this I don't they should ever be used to denigrate competitors or brag.]

    I believe the most important thing now is to acknowledge that there is a great diversity of opinion and approach within the PR space. The industry is not homogenous, there is no "PR worldview". Some agencies do indeed see the future and challenge their clients to do better short-term and long-term, often in difficult conversations at the highest level. Others see it as promoting a hundred GB pound (£) donation to a local charity. I suspect that's the end of the PR industry your team hears from most, so I do understand why you hold your present opinion.

    It would be authentic and right for you to acknowledge this, and perhaps shine the occasional light on PR companies that are trying to articulate and advocate what Abraham Lincoln described as "the better angels of our nature".

    I'm sure than none of us are perfect, and we have many inconsistencies that can be addressed. But spend some time with the best and best-intentioned in our industry and you find some people and projects that are making a positive difference.


  5. Thanks for the comments Bill.

    Food for thought!

    Here's a pubcast I taped on the topic yesterday, which may be of interest.



  6. Sandra van der Lingen


    I wonder if the problem here is really that PR companies don't understand corporate responsibility. I personally that the problem is an overall lack of understanding of how to integrate CSR in communications programs.

    Everyone is struggling here. Not only PR firms. I'm sure that if you check the knowledge of the communications people at global organisations and you will be dissapointed as well.

  7. Toby,

    Great post and pubcast. I think you're probably right to call out the failure of public relations practitioners to understand CSR. However, in comparison to most of the other functions within corporations today, I would say their knowledge of CSR is probably higher. The reason being that PR people are (hopefully) interacting with external stakeholders and understand that there is a growing desire for information regarding their client's CSR initiatives.

    Many of the bad pitches you are receiving don't surprise me because they are endemic to PR agencies, not just on CSR. Young PR practitioners understand very little about BUSINESS in general, let alone CSR, which many businesses struggle to understand themselves. PR agencies also aren't very good at telling their clients "no" when it comes to pitching non-newsworthy stories because they're worried about insulting the CMO or turning away work.

    PR needs to communicate CSR better, but their failure is not isolated. I would say that CSR is something that most business functions need to better understand and address.

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