CSR: Urging ethical work - After years in consumer PR, Lynne Franks tells Claire Murphy why she's now into CSR

Her life reads like a tracker of social issues through the latter part of the 20th century. After contributing to the heady, fun-fuelled 1980s via her principally fashion and beauty oriented PR agency Life PR, Lynne Franks became increasingly interested in spiritual and ethical issues.

She sold her agency to Ketchum in 1988, and continued to explore alternative ways of living and doing business, eventually moving to California in 1997.

Now she's back. After five years of being based in LA and constantly travelling the world, Britain's PR diva has moved back to London to spread the gospel of ethical business.

So has California mellowed her drive? Or has she succumbed to the demon compromise that afflicts all but the most determined of her age group?

Not a bit of it. She bursts forth at full velocity, thoughts rushing ahead faster than she can get the words out.The energy that she once devoted to fashion and beauty PR is now realigned to address one of the biggest issues in corporate reputation today - corporate social responsibility (CSR).

She's not backward at coming forward ('I have a recognised zeitgeist awareness of what's going to be next') but, given her record, modesty would be fairly inappropriate.

She started an agency in 1998, GlobalFusion, with a partner, working for environmentally-friendly cosmetic and fashion brands, but most of her energies have been channelled into an international network that helps women entrepreneurs. Seed (which stands for sustainable enterprise and empowerment dynamics) has spiralled into a significant force, spawning a handbook that has been sold across the world.

Seed will continue to be a focus for Franks, and one that illustrates her beliefs on the way forward for CSR programmes in the UK. One of her initial goals is to get companies to send some of their employees to help Seed ethnic minority women get their businesses off the ground. She also hopes to encourage retailers to host events for community groups.

'I want to be a kind of marriage broker between the community and business world,' she says.

'Everybody wins with these schemes. It's a way of creating brand value at community level, where it really matters. "Value

is such a misused word in the commercial world. A lot of marketers think that they can create a new bottle, for example, and call it adding value. It's not. These community programmes are a way that companies can target women, who make up 80 per cent of consumers, in a meaningful way. You've got to be that much smarter to reach women - it has to be at grassroots level,' she adds.

Partnerships between companies and community groups is one of Franks' passions, and one that is undoubtedly influenced by her time in the US where the public affairs industry is focused on dialogue with community groups. But she maintains that there is considerable scope for much more of this kind of activity in the UK: 'It's all about influencing the influencers, getting other people to talk about your CSR programmes. That's far more effective than talking about it yourself.

'PR has become so much more than just the media coverage. The real work, (in communicating a company's CSR activities) is how something is received on the ground, how it's passed on by word of mouth. Of course it's nice for the ego to see big pieces in the paper, but I don't think people believe too much of what they read in the papers now anyway,' she says.

Franks isn't bullish about the current preoccupation of the industry on measuring the value of PR, particularly with regard to social programmes.

'I don't think PR is measurable, period. You can do a survey to find out how people heard about something, but what does that tell you about how they feel about it? That's what is important. No, I think business leaders should follow their intuition more, and take the attitude that if they don't move in a more ethical direction, how will that damage their business?' she says.

She talks of the increasingly widespread phenomenon of companies being "outed

for failing to live up to the ethical standards introduced in July 2000, when the Government's Statement of Investment Principles regulation ruled that institutional investors must disclose the social and environmental polices of their occupational pensions funds.

'It's a fear factor that drives many businesses to clean up their act, and often it is the ones caught out early who are now the most shining examples of ethically-sound businesses - look at Shell and Reebok. The directors at Shell were horrified that they were caught up in the Ken Saro-Wiwa saga and were the first to change. They're now very forward looking in their environmental practices,' says Franks.

'It's not realistic to expect any business to be 100 per cent clean, but all they can do is start from a position of integrity, constantly auditing to make sure that there isn't anything that someone is going to dig up. My concern is when large corporations use PR agencies to teach them how to bullshit - Elastoplast over the problem so that they look good. I'm quite happy to leave that kind of international smokescreen stuff to the Burson-Marstellers and Edelmans of this world.'

Warming to her theme of integrity in business, Franks predicts that the next few years will see a greater preoccupation with the production of more ethically sound products, particularly more health-conscious food.

'We've had the environmental backlash, and the concern over corporate human rights and child labour abuses. The next thing will be a greater public demand to know the details of ingredients in food and cosmetics. There's such an opportunity for forward-thinking businesses to develop more ethically-sourced lines,' she says.

'Companies should be investing in research that looks at how they can get into these alternative means of production, rather than doing like the tobacco companies have done and ploughing money into research that tries to prove that their products aren't harmful.'

Everyone wants a better quality of life, she points out, and companies must find ways of helping consumers achieve that.

Franks is the epitomy of living her own brand. All her theories on business are borne out through her personal activities; she's just interviewed the Barefoot Doctor for GQ, she's writing a book on women's lifestyles, and she says she wants to get involved with Government initiatives to combat smoking (five years in California has made her hatred of smoking more intense).

There is also talk, among her many plans, of taking on private clients or considering a move back into agency life to work specifically on CSR counselling. But she is adamant that any agency that considers her proposition will not be hiring a trophy executive with a high-profile but low involvement.

Franks intends to roll up her sleeves on client issues: 'I want to be genuinely involved. You won't catch me being the token greenie.'

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