"Global business is the most powerful force for progress in the world that humanity has seen," Simon Walker, director of corporate communications at Reuters, said at the PRWeek global roundtable in July 2004.
"Large companies need to stop apologizing for themselves and start talking about all the good they are doing in the world."
Walker was articulating a frustration that many on the corporate side feel, particularly when they know how much time and effort goes into cultural, charitable, and sustainability programs every year. The fact that the global corporation is not perceived as a force for good is not surprising.
However, the effective, well-intentioned response to the hurricanes by such companies as Wal-Mart and The Home Depot has created an opportunity for companies to send an important message. Actually, two messages. First, the most important thing is to do the right thing. Second, it's OK to talk about what you are doing, as long as that's not your main priority.
Many companies eschew seizing the spotlight to grandstand about their generosity and community spirit in a way that may be seen as opportunistic.
They are right to be wary of that, and shouldn't exploit the misery of others for positive ink.
But there are many pragmatic reasons why companies should talk about what they do, especially when they do it the right way. First and foremost is the need to keep stakeholders informed, whether they are shareholders, board members, or customers. When resources, financial or otherwise, are committed to activities outside the company, that information should be available to relevant parties. More important, employees should always be fully informed about the activities of their company in their communities.
Equally, companies should be direct about the resources they call on to execute programs and tell their story. When PRWeek called Wal-Mart about its Katrina activities after its work with Edelman was made public, the company's spokesperson denied working with any firm to communicate what it was doing to help the region. Given that the company has earned undiluted praise for its relief efforts, and has espoused a new philosophy of media openness, that response is disheartening. It reinforces the perception that tying PR to good works is nothing more than spin.
Hughes' diplomatic push gets off to rocky start
Karen Hughes faced a restive audience in Saudi Arabia last week as she advanced a vision of liberation for women in the region - basically it boiled down to voting and driving. Some in the audience, according to news reports, didn't seem to think the latter, at least, was such a big deal.
There is a tendency for some Americans, whatever their political bias, to over-simplify the complex cultural landscape that forms policy in other countries. The Middle East is generally characterized according to one set of preconceived notions of cultural mores and laws, with little thought to regional variation, even within countries. In addition, the values that Westerners attach to certain things do not always match the needs or interests of another culture.
These are missteps Hughes cannot afford to make in this all-too-late campaign to recalibrate the US's image overseas. Though Hughes has been praised for her openness in encouraging a dialogue, it was an inauspicious start to a badly needed endeavor.