September 28, 2010

CSR as PR?

More and more companies are hiring in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as any quick job search will show. And that would seem like good news. However, as one looks through the ads, it becomes clear that they are nearly all in Public Relations (PR). The rest are merely legal compliance jobs, so are not really about social responsibility. You know how low the culture has sunk when simply following the law counts as being socially responsible.

Unfortunately, very few companies are looking to hire anyone at the strategic level with expertise in ethics and social responsibility. And that's because most corporations still consider it an aspect of marketing and communications, namely, PR. But that's a serious deficiency at best (and deceptive at worst) if no one in upper management is an actual business ethicist.

PR-CSR officers may still be able to communicate new best practices upward, but that's putting the cart before the horse. And it does nothing to reduce suspicions the public widely harbors that CSR is little more than window dressing. BP is a glaring recent example of greenwashing corporate policy, changing its name from British Petroleum to "Beyond Petroleum" while callously maintaining perhaps the worst environmental record in the oil industry.

If corporations want to continue using CSR as a selling point to affluent, educated and conscientious customers, they will have to stop eating away at their own credibility. Ultimately, the only way to do this is to integrate their CSR divisions within upper-level strategic management. Until then, corporations are merely putting a social face on strategies conceived for much narrower purposes.

A good way to start would be to hire business ethics professors, who sadly remain conspicuously absent from corporate America. That would also send the message to business students that ethics and philosophy are valuable in the marketplace.


  1. Julian:

    I'm all in favour of anything that raises demand for business ethics professors, since I am one of them. :-)

    But I'm not sure it's such a bad sign when, as you say, "simply following the law counts as being socially responsible." Not that simple adherence to the law is "enough." But I'm also increasingly aware that, for major corporations in complex industries, it's probably nearly impossible to *never* break the law or violate any regulation -- especially when you consider the sheer number of employees involved. Even the most ethical CEO cannot rely on 10,000 employees always doing the right thing.

    Chris MacDonald

  2. Good point Chris. Thanks. We both are assuming that generally legal compliance is not overly burdensome. We could of course imagine examples, especially on an international scope, in which the overwhelming majority of corporations flout the law either out of sheer callousness, corruption, or because the regulation is simply too onerous for most to follow. In such atmospheres, legal compliance may indeed be a courageous effort.

    So I see that good reasons abound to include compliance within the wider realm of social responsibility. Still, when we are not considering such cases, I'm not sure that striving to ensure that , say, 10,000 employees are doing the right thing is really what qualifies as CSR. Isn't it really ensuring that employees aren't behaving illegally, indeed even criminally?

    So there is a certain irony in calling such actions "doing the right thing" as if paying one's taxes is doing the right thing. To me, doing the right thing goes beyond merely refraining from illegal behavior, which is but the barest moral minimum. It means to stand up for what is right and good even when doing so may come at significant cost.

    I don't see how companies that content themselves with CSR as PR work can rise to this level of integrity.

  3. What's wrong with the notion that our laws are an expression of a baseline ethical standard that we all agree to? If it is, and if we expect more "ethical" behavior from companies, shouldn't we insist in changing the law and holding companies accountable that way? You seem to be insisting that ethical behavior be voluntary. However, that leads companies to think of it as a choice, another attribute they can use to distinguish their products and services. Nobody should be surprised that CSR should be considered part of marketing communications.

  4. Great point Steve. And thanks for posting.

    This is a timeless debate actually. Your view might even go further to argue that when we leave ethics to corporations with little or no ethical expertise they will distort social values to their own purposes, thereby promoting unhealthy attitudes and self images, like overly thin models and over-consumption and materialism. Indeed, this is already the case...

    The classic move against this argument is that we're already there. So pressuring corporations to take ethics more seriously can only be an improvement. And of course we're already there too.

    But to get to your main point as stated, what you suggest is very difficult since not everything that is ethical is one's duty. Some acts that we would expect conscientious people and responsible corporate citizens to engage in arguably go above and beyond the call of duty. So although it's not quite a moral obligation, we don't think very highly of those who only content themselves with always doing only the barest moral minimum. So we wouldn't want to make all good acts legal requirements--for corporate persons anymore than real persons.


    That said, we do regulate a great deal, and the neoclassical economic view on this is basically the one you defend here (as did the Economist Magazine just a few years ago, and since retracted) namely, leave CSR to the government and business to business. But we live in a capitalist society (much more than England, which publishes the Economist) that grants immense power to the private sector. Thus we expect more of corporations here.

    That said, I would surely welcome tougher regulations on all sorts of things, starting perhaps with an offshoring tax and the end of rules allowing the costs of moving facilities offshore to be written off as a business expense. I think this is indeed an issue of social justice and thus in the category of moral duty.

    All I'm saying in the post above is that if we expect business to act socially responsibly, we should expect that vision be integrated into strategic and not mainly public relations decisions.

  5. Of course I mean we should expect this as consumers. Or else it's mere window dressing. For responsible consumers who take ethics seriously, expect the CSR to be much more than mere window dressing. But that's not to say that perhaps many do it for the wrong reasons, e.g. to feel a vague sense of hipness. I actually have a post on this too, criticizing David Brooks for claiming that this is really all so-called responsible shoppers are doing: