OP-ED: PR's involvement in CSR is key to strengthening both

After years of searching, I found it in sub-freezing Berlin at the United Nations Global Compact meeting two weeks ago.

After years of searching, I found it in sub-freezing Berlin at the United Nations Global Compact meeting two weeks ago.

"It" being the most compelling rationale for PR people to accept "corporate social responsibility" (by any of its many names) as a major element of our calling. Sure, it's been easy to make the case that CSR equals stakeholder relations equals public relations. PRWeek has long championed this position, most recently in its December 16 editorial, "CSR takes rightful place in PR hierarchy." But at the Global Compact meeting - a "learning forum" in which professionals from more than 100 major companies, dozens of NGOs, and government agencies from around the world, explored new frontiers of cooperation to advance corporate citizenship worldwide - the "Aha! moment" seemed profound. The newly added dimension of CSR - PR linkage - goes like this: One of the most challenging demands on PR people has long been the need to "understand the business" of the client or employer. Though this has often meant familiarity with the principles of finance, it's also been a code for knowing the essence of the company and how it performs business functions. Now, with the fast-spreading commitment to CSR, a case can be made that a fundamental new business model - one that respects stakeholder and shareholder values simultaneously - is evolving. Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware Center for Corporate Governance, recently offered the most succinct summary of this evolving business model: "I believe in shareholder primacy. On the other hand, I firmly believe that, unless you are honest and take care of the other stakeholders in the business (employees, customers, suppliers, and community), you will never create the profitability for your shareholders that you are required to under the law of fiduciary responsibility." Lo and behold comes the emergence of the "hub-and-spokes" business model, with reciprocal relationships between shareholders and stakeholders interests - a model PR pros should feel especially comfortable with. (But don't fail to take a few finance courses anyway.) The Berlin Global Compact meeting drilled down on subjects such as "Multi-stakeholder Approaches for Sustainable Solutions" and "Transparency and Conflict Prevention." In the session on "Sustainability in Media, PR, and Marketing," we were able to stress the inherent linkage of true PR with policy and performance. And, while acknowledging that CSR progress requires expertise from many professions, we contended "two-way symmetrical PR" (the Grunig formulation) is at the heart of successful CSR programs. The rapid acceptance of corporate "social reports" and the increasing readiness to reach out to NGOs and governments as potential partners, we suggested, underscores the need of communications in the CSR mix. The Global Compact meeting came hot on the heels of two other seminal national conference developments. The first occurred at the PRSA's 2002 International Conference in San Francisco in mid-November, when PRSA announced the formation of a special practice section, Strategic Social Responsibility. The section has dual importance: Section members will be both from nonprofit groups - foundations, civic organizations, etc. which, after all, also have social responsibilities - and the corporate sector. So the section has potential as a forum for the kind of institutional partnering that is increasingly important for CSR progress. Just before the PRSA conference, a premier US-headquartered CSR organization, Business for Social Responsibility, held a precedent-setting annual conference in Miami, "Return on Responsibility: Realizing Value for Business and Society." The conference addressed critical communications themes, especially in terms of developing societies in Latin America and other parts of the world. In all of these CSR developments - and many more - it has become more apparent that PR has a central role to play as the private sector, in its own interest, and in the interest of society as a whole, moves ahead in a whole new era of responsibility. In a personal reprise, I repeat what I said to Newsday reporter Dennis Weintraub many years ago when, constructing an article called "Social Conscience For Hire," he questioned whether CSR and PR were compatible: "I feel like I'm practicing public relations in its best form. I'm trying to help clients conduct their business in a manner responsive to all the people."
  • John Paluszek is senior counsel at Ketchum.

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