COMMENT: EDITORIAL; The science of conscience

The good corporate citizens of the UK have been out in force this week.

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

power responsibly’.

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


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