City & Corporate: Moral high ground sets you up for fall

It is one of the oddities about PR that a company that falls short of its high standards tends to get worse treatment in the press than a company that never bothered to set a standard in the first place.

Shell, having positioned itself as caring about the environment, was mauled over its plans to dispose of the Brent Spar oil production platform by sinking it in the Atlantic. Mobil, its 50:50 partner which had never made any environmental commitments, was unscathed.

Last weekend, BP got worked over in The Independent on Sunday because it is lobbying the US congress over a bill that would impose compulsory emissions targets. BP, rather than the oil industry, caught the flak because the lobbying seemed at odds with the firm's public position on the need for sustainable growth.

But the global giant that has suffered most for its claims is, surely, Citigroup, the US financial conglomerate whose annual report says it should set itself even higher standards than exist in the market as a whole.

But it seems to have behaved with an arrogance which suggests it thinks rules are for little people - in Japan its private banking arm was banned for repeated breaches of the rules; in Europe it sought to destabilise the eurozone bond markets with a massive bear raid; and in London it tried to poach one third of the staff of a rival broker.

So why do firms that fall short get a bigger pasting? They try and seize the high ground to gain an edge over their competitors, and when

they disappoint they are seen as cheating; having taken such high-profile positions, they cannot then plead ignorance about the issues; and underlying these statements is the desire to foster trust, and trust betrayed causes bitterness.

So is it worth making these claims in the first place? Not if you can't deliver.

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