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A tale of distasteful PR

 We’ve railed in the magazine in the past about how PR firms just don’t get corporate responsibility.
Martin Sorrell may be an impressive CEO of WPP, and quite into tackling climate change.
But his firms, and the others in the industry, are pretty damn hopeless when it comes corporate responsibility, their impact, and their clients.
One of the reasons I think, is that the top people in PR don’t care, because they understand how they really make their money. That’s often by resisting change, and it pays well.
One senior PR exec told me a couple of years ago that whilst he wouldn’t work for the dodgy “rag” trade (clothing, textiles), he’d more than happily do PR and lobbying for central Asian dictators! 
The junior people in PR don’t have time to read about the topic, and instead spend a lot time writing press releases they don’t really understand and hassling journalists who loathe them.
Here’s some of our past, more constructive comments on the subject, in article format, and as a podcast.
I am constantly reminded that whilst CR changes, PR remains the same.
The big problem for PR/lobbyists is a simple one. It’s economics. 
What I mean is that defending the status quo will almost always pay better than promoting change. 

So they are kind of structurally compromised from a sustainability point of view, until that changes. 

And I don’t really see it doing so right now. i.e. there’s way more money in fossil fuels than renewables, way more money in cheap forced labour, say, in cotton than organics, etc etc…
 

Here’s a brief recent tale, dear reader, that might offer a small insight into the corporate culture in big PR.
A while ago I was at a friend’s house. I won’t say where.
A good friend of his works for a big PR and lobbying firm, I won’t say which. One of the really big ones.
A group of middle ranking folks at the PR firm in question wanted to take part in a charity event, a marathon.
They knew their firm did some CSR/Green work for clients.
So they asked the firm’s higher echelons for some sponsorship, so they could raise money for charity.
“No”, came the response. The keen staff were disappointed.
Then came the bombshell via an internal email, from higher up:
“Can you wear company T-shirts anyway, considering you don’t have a sponsor?”
All together now, “ouch”.

4 Comments

  1. Damn right Toby, I was told by an MD of just such a company this week that their work was comparable to a barrister (delusions of grandeur?) where they had a responsibility, as long as they weren't being asked to do anything illegal, of just doing the best job for their client…as Soli put it 'when you want to tackle prostitution don't punish the whores, take on the punters'. Clients need to stop issuing shady briefs. PR and mainstream comms is unlikely to change independently! They. Just. Don't. Get. It

    ; )

  2. Toby,
    There are some people in public relations (just like there are people in legal, HR, the C-Suite, etc.) who don't get CSR and I think they deserve to be called out. But it's accurate to label the entire profession like you do in this post. I know lots and lots of PR people who take csr and sustainability very seriously. You can see links to many of them on my blog: http://www.greenwaycommunique.com

    Regardless of what you think of PR, communication is a vital component of CSR. In fact, I would say that it's impossible to have a successful CSR effort without good communication to employees, investors, suppliers, regulators and the public. More often than not, that communication is led by people in people in PR.

  3. Oops. Prior comment should have said "But it's NOT accurate to label the entire profession like you do in this post."

  4. The problem with PR is that it is a broad church – there are good examples of people working hard to change companies from within, and others like those you describe, where PRs have no more integrity than a solicitor (and all coppers are thieves and everyone in the army shouts like a sergeant major).
    Communication about CSR is vital to maintaining the momentum required for change, probably as much within a company as outside it.
    I don't agree that maintaining the status quo always pays better.. in many organisations there is a compelling case for change and for being on the side that calls for it.

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