PAUL HOLMES: When you don't grasp society's expectations, you don't grasp what corporate PR should be

The editors of Across the Board, the magazine of the Conference Board, decided to ask some of corporate America's toughest critics about their biggest frustrations. One respondent, Edward Fire of Corporate Watch, summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues when he criticized "the towering arrogance that leads corporations to treat every social and environmental objection to their activities as a PR problem."

The editors of Across the Board, the magazine of the Conference Board, decided to ask some of corporate America's toughest critics about their biggest frustrations. One respondent, Edward Fire of Corporate Watch, summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues when he criticized "the towering arrogance that leads corporations to treat every social and environmental objection to their activities as a PR problem."

Regular readers of this column will find my reaction to that statement entirely predictable. Social and environmental objections are a PR problem. They are indicative of a deep chasm in the relationship between an institution and one or more of its key stakeholder groups. The real problem isn't that corporations are misdiagnosing the problem; it's that they believe PR problems can be solved by words rather than actions. I could spend this whole column explaining (yet again) that PR is not about cosmetic fixes, or heated rhetoric, but about substantive action that meets public expectations. I could argue that since corporations don't understand how to properly use PR, we shouldn't get upset if corporate critics dismiss PR as a mere placebo. But instead, I would like to suggest that we address these problems by creating a new post within corporate PR departments: VP of societal relations. Okay, I don't like the title much, but I think the job - managing the interface between an organization and the society in which it operates - is an important one, and I don't think it's currently being done. PR people tend to think in terms of discreet publics: employees, shareholders, and stakeholders. (There's a community relations function, but it tends to focus on local communities and philanthropic issues.) More important, PR people tend to think in terms of immediate problems: issues that are making headlines today. But someone must focus on the broader relationship between business and society in order to grasp the way society's expectations are changing, and the approaches business needs to take if it is to adapt to those changes. They must look at big, macro issues - governance, environmental standards, labor issues - and how they're likely to impact a corporation's license to operate in the future. There will be some critics of business who shudder at such a function being contained within the PR department, who will dismiss it as another "PR move." But I believe it's at the core of what PR should be about: monitoring the expectations of society and trying to align the behavior of the organization more closely with those expectations. In the end, that can lead only to more win-win solutions and a less fractious world.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 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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