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.