The good corporate citizens of the UK have been out in force this week.
On Monday, Shell UK chairman Dr Chris Fay set the tone by spelling out
the lessons of last year’s Brent Spar saga. He concluded that companies
need to be ‘more open about their activities, more ready to debate the
issues they raise, more responsive to people’s concerns, and more
assiduous in demonstrating that they can be trusted to exercise their
Meanwhile Tarmac chairman Sir John Banham declared that his firm is
prepared to lose the pounds 100 million contract to build the Newbury
bypass - which it is tipped to win - if environmental considerations are
ignored in favouring the cheapest option. And Sainsbury’s announced a
new ethical code of conduct, which is designed to ensure minimum
standards of working conditions among suppliers in developing countries.
It would be easy to be cynical about all this. Shell is demonstrating
the wisdom of hindsight; environment-friendly Tarmac was the contractor
which built the Twyford Down M3 extension in the face of massive
protests; and the recent criticism of Marks and Spencer over allegations
about some of its suppliers will not have gone unnoticed by Sainsbury’s.
But all three statements, in differing ways, highlight the shift in the
relationship between business, politics and the public. Companies are
realising that they can no longer afford to act in a high-handed manner
towards the public and media literate pressure groups. They need to
engage in dialogue with them. Corporate accountability is the watchword
of the 1990s, and unless companies heed the message they will pay for it
- not only with their image, but with lost sales, falling share prices
and costly damage limitation exercises.
Dialogue, need not, and should not mean caving into the demands of every
protester. Even in this new climate, oil companies may still be able to
dispose of disused platforms at sea. But the arguments will have to be
aired and won in the public arena before the dumping, not during it.
It is true that complex scientific issues are hard to get across, when
the media prefer the ‘simple truths’ of the soundbite. But it can be
achieved with open debate, negotiation, and - if necessary - swift
action to quell public fears before incipient crises get out of hand.
The pity is that captains of industry will probably not recognise this
process as PR. Instead it will be called ‘policy’ or ‘strategy’. The PR
industry needs to hammer home the message that such business decisions
are entirely, absolutely and fundamentally concerned with public