COMMENT: Thought Leader - PR can't address anti-globalism with fakephrases and empty gestures

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

media opportunities.

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.

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