INSIDE THE BELTWAY: The current wave of corporate altruism is a fine thing, but it may not be as altruistic as it looks

Let us now praise famous companies.

Let us now praise famous companies.

Let us now praise famous companies.



Anyone can, it seems, write a bestseller or even gain a mention on a

slow day just by bemoaning the sad state of American morals. And now

businessmen are fair game, too. In the run-up to the China trade vote,

there was talk among Republicans that some business interests were

looking for profits without regard for human rights or, of course, the

loss of American jobs.



(The latter concern is dismissed by even ’liberal’ commentators as a

’narrow self-interest’ of Big Labor; it is actually even narrower in the

mind of the union member whose factory moves to Beijing.)



There was considerable stirring and praise, especially from physicians

bedeviled by insurance companies’ accountants masquerading as medical

experts, when United Health Care announced last November it would no

longer require ’pre-cert’ - the second (non-professional) opinion needed

to qualify for payment by the HMO.



An attack on HMOs in the 1998 movie As Good As it Gets drew enthusiastic

cheers from audiences across the country, and might have caused other

major HMOs to change their policies, but Congressional action

threatening to permit patients to sue negligent HMOs struck so quickly

there was little time for the generous gesture.



But the PR value to United was immediate - and substantial.



Now comes the Ford Motor Company, in a recent announcement described by

its chairman (a great-grandson of Henry Ford, in whose vocabulary it is

doubtful the word ’altruism’ even existed) as ’part altruism and part

long-term business planning.’ Ford acknowledged its record profit-making

SUVs were safety dangers on the road and unpopular with other motorists

- and Ford was rethinking the design and, indeed, the emphasis and the

marketing.



’The court of public opinion sometimes decides before you are ready for

them to decide, and I want to make sure we’re ahead of the curve,’ said

William Ford, probably thinking of some possible new movie in which

Julia Roberts would complain about some ’monster SUV that pushed me off

the road’ - the next line drowned out by tumultuous applause.



Whatever the impulse, Ford is on the same ’altruistic’ track as

United.



Analysts must focus on quarterlies or even annuals, Ford noted, but the

subject is policies with ’payoffs five, 10, 20, 50 years down the line.’

Rival DaimlerChrysler said, ’We’re every bit as responsible in safety

and environmental issues as Ford,’ but as PR observer Charles McLean put

it, ’Who would you rather have been the next morning, the CEO of Ford,

or the CEO of DaimlerChrysler?’



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