Categories: CSR reality check
11 February 2009
Corporate responsibility: the least we can do
Boyd Neil has written a valuable manifesto in favour of CSR entitled “CR on the Hotseat” on his PR blog The Intangibles. Here’s my manifesto and it isn’t against Corporate Social Responsibility. I just put honesty as the highest responsibility. And I do think CSR has such a bad image it should be ditched in favour of sustainability, eventually.
(1) I am a PR and part of my value to clients is the business of keeping them honest. So I have to interrogate whether the client is walking whatever talk he or she fancies. CSR makes quite big claims and is therefore hazardous. That’s not an argument against using CSR any more than it is an argument against vaccination.
(2) One problem with supporters of CSR is that they tend to imply that people who are resistant to its charms are less moral and less attractive than those who like it. But many businesses, for many reasons, are resistant to lumbering themselves with a wide social or moral remit and many such businesses do great good. There is, in short, merit in competitive no-frills business.
(3) I believe that all firms have an obligation (professional, moral, practical) to be honest. This is the ancient business of valuing probity, frankness, fairness. This is quite a narrow and inward-looking approach: it is about self-examination and de minimus standards. It is not about how much a firm can do, it is about the least it must do.
I believe that most reputational and ethical failure in the business world (Enron and so on) has been in this area, and not in CSR. I believe that getting the honesty thing right is the first and hardest part of a firm’s responsibility.
(4) I do not at all doubt that CSR is or can be good for the bottom line. But that is not an argument in its favour. Or rather, it is an argument about the expediency of CSR, whilst CSR’s real claim is to reach beyond expediency onto some higher plane. Again and again I repeat: that’s fine. Firms can be and do whatever their shareholders want.
(5) But right now PRs are all over the place talking about CSR, or increasingly “CR”, which conveniently drops the “social” wider moral bit. Dropping the “S” is a shrewd move, but it rather robs the whole big idea of its bigness.
I quite like the move to discuss “sustainability” because it captures ideas about future-proofing the firm. That’s got plenty of problems, but at least it doesn’t claim huge moral virtue.
I think that sustainable development provides the platform to overcome the cynicism that CSR provokes. Not least because firms can convincingly make the case for putting sustainable profitability at the head of all the competing sustainabilitities that different stakeholders will propose.
(6) Last, all firms now have to have an approach to CSR, or whatever we end up calling it. Being negative about it won’t work, I agree.
I have worked with firms on full-on CSR and very much enjoyed it.
But I insist on the merit of reminding everybody about the first layer of responsibility. That is that the first job of the firm is to fulfill corporate objectives on behalf of shareholders, which is the job of corporate governance to oversee, and to do so honestly.