PAUL HOLMES: Stakeholders - not CEOs - determine which issues companies should address or ignore

Sometimes, activists find themselves locked in battle with an intransigent foe over which they have little direct leverage. That's the case for women's groups pressuring the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women.

Sometimes, activists find themselves locked in battle with an intransigent foe over which they have little direct leverage. That's the case for women's groups pressuring the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women.

When the National Council of Women's Organizations wrote Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson in an attempt to open discussions, she was swiftly rebuffed. Pro golfers quickly made it clear that they wouldn't sacrifice the opportunity to play in the Masters in order to end the apartheid at Augusta, and when the NCWO's Martha Burk threatened to take her case to sponsors, Johnson trumped her by ending the tournament's relationship with Citibank, Coca-Cola, and IBM.

So now Burk is targeting CEOs who enjoy membership privileges at Augusta, such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Sandy Weill - as well as William Harrison of J.P. Morgan and Chris Galvin of Motorola, who were honored with leadership awards at a Business Women's Network and Diversity Awards gala in Washington last week.

In a letter to CEOs, Burk warns that membership "sends a message to your customers that [your] company's statements on discrimination are hollow and insincere."

So far, few of the targeted CEOs have responded (Weill is an exception), in part one suspects because any public comment would be grounds for immediate dismissal from Augusta, but also perhaps because the companies take the position that this is not their issue - it's unrelated to their core business. That's a reasonable position to take, but it's also unrealistic. One of the big PR mistakes companies make is assuming they get to decide which issues (and stakeholder groups) are legitimate.

After its troubles over the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform and the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell undertook a study into public attitudes and expectations around the world. It found that people everywhere hold corporations accountable for a wide range of activities, including those taken by overseas governments with whom they partner. It was a laudable exercise, but one conclusion was flawed: that there were some political and social issues with which the company should not concern itself.

That choice is not the company's to make. The legitimacy of a stakeholder group is defined not by the company, but by the group's ability to influence the company's success or failure. And stakeholders get to choose the issues they consider relevant.

It remains to be seen whether customers, shareholders, and employees of Citibank, Microsoft, and Motorola consider discrimination at Augusta to be a serious issue in which those companies have a responsibility. But that decision lies with the stakeholders, not the CEOs.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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