We were so focused on globalization that some of us hadn't paid
enough attention to the strong anti-global forces challenging important
institutions - until September 11, that is. We were so engaged in the
"pursuit of happiness," that we disengaged from the world.
It has gotten to the point where many young people are alienated from
the whole political process. Either they don't pay attention to it, or
they become part a growing protest movement against the established
Many of these young people are anti-global and anti-corporation.
But how were they spawned? Partly from what I would call lack of
authenticity in the establishment. Peter Beinart, editor of The New
Republic, says: "Americans hate the way politicians talk." These days,
politicians travel not to talk with local civic groups but to create
They hire consultants - sometimes PR people - to teach them how to talk
without saying anything. They have developed an entire "inorganic array
of words, phrases, even gestures" designed not to offend anyone. People
feel lied to by "fake phrases and sound bites."
The anti-global rage has been increased by the rise of Bobos, who are
the synthesis of the bohemian and bourgeois cultures. In the 1960s,
hippies turned ideas of self-expression and self-fulfillment into a mass
Initially, the bourgeois didn't feel threatened. But in the 1980s, the
bourgeois conservatives began articulating their defense: Hard work,
responsibility, and thrift creates a moral context for capitalism. In
short, the bohemians won the '60s debate on culture (you shouldn't
regulate morality) and the bourgeois won on economics in the '80s (you
shouldn't regulate the market) and gave birth to a sort of moral
In other words, the leadership in politics and business today has
created a great middle ground. On both the right and left of the Bobo
middle ground, are groups of people furious at their fakery.
Nowhere is this more evident than in American corporate culture.
Companies everywhere portray themselves as social movements.
They're hip. Ironically, it's the hip companies that the anti-global
people hate. Nike, Apple, Starbucks. They hate them because these
companies have taken to themselves the language of the bohemian culture
and have made a mockery of their leftist values.
Such a culture has given birth to many anti-globalist groups. They are a
varied group of NGOs. Most are not radical. In the US, they range from
the alienated bohemians who feel their most precious values of
individualism have been violated, to groups genuinely concerned about
many legitimate issues, like human rights, labor rights, and the
So how can PR respond to the growth of anti-globalism? First we must
revisit corporate social responsibility. Gestures aren't enough. Enron's
investment in a major electric plant in Dabhol, India has caused deep
resentment of the prices of the electricity from their plant, and of
their presence in the local area in general. Enron has supported local
charities, schools, and hospitals, but is still seen as exploiting the
Professional PR has a key role to play in helping corporations redefine
social responsibility and establish new ethical standards. If we don't,
other consultants will.
In rethinking corporate social responsibility, we must also make our
messages more authentic. Corporate reputation can't rest on cosmetic
slogans or ads. After September 11, one PR commentator suggested that we
needed a "snappy concept" for a campaign to discredit terrorists. The
same PR man called for one strong VIP spokesperson for the Muslim world,
someone like the Pope for the Catholics, or John Travolta for the
Ridiculous. We have to stop this superficial thinking and do a much
better job of explaining our traditions and values.
In addition to structuring clearer, honest messages in English, foreign
languages need to be studied by PR executives. Language opens the door
to culture and understanding. In the future, all international PR pros
should be multilingual.
We must also enter into honest dialogue with different cultures and
We need to listen to local advice. Many of us learn about foreign
cultures and hire local consultants. Then we don't listen and don't act
on local advice. In our efforts to understand other cultures better, we
have a great resource in the PR professionals in other countries.
In addition to starting dialogues with overseas colleagues, we have
great opportunities to practice international PR right here at home.
Following September 11, there are many US communities that need the PR
industry's help to better explain other cultures to them.
PR pros should also get to know and understand NGOs and their issues
Let's all get to work. We have been disengaged for too long, not only
from concerns outside our borders, but also from the concerns of our
brightest young people. Let's all become internationalists and real
Let's speak clearly about our values, but also listen. Let's show the
world we have a true sense of social responsibility.
Barbara Burns, APR, Fellow IPRA, began her career in the international
PR department of a Fortune 500 company. She has held executive posts
over a 15-year period in two of the largest US PR firms. In 1990, she
founded Barbara Burns & Associates, an international PR consultancy. She
is a former member of the Executive Committee and past chair of the PRSA
International Section. She is on the Board of Directors of the United
Nations Association of New York.