CSR Reports? Reporting of irresponsible behaviours; new book by Paolo D’Anselmi

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Values and Stakeholders in an Era of Responsibility, a new book by Paolo D’Anselmi

Book review by Toni Muzi Falconi


Disclosure: Paolo D’Anselmi is an old friend of mine. I am grateful to the current leaders of PR Conversations for allowing me to introduce to its many visitors and readers Paolo’s most recent  book—his first in the English language—which reveals a number of unique arguments adding much “food for thought” for every public relations and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) professional.

The book is called, Values and Stakeholders in an Era of Responsibility. It has just been released from Palgrave Macmillan. “All work must be accounted for,” is the author’s mantra (see this YouTube video to get a better sense of what is in the book).

Some key points in Values and Stakeholders in an Era of Responsibility

Below are a few of the many, well-argued points from Paolo D’Anselmi (a public policy analyst, graduate from the Kennedy School of Government, electrical engineer and member of Ferpi, Italy’s public relations association):

  1. Most sustainability reports, rather than balance sheets, are bull sheets.
  2. Vertical as well as horizontal competition is the utmost values for today’s organizational sustainability.
  3. The first step in preparing a reporting process is to prove the many ways the organization acts irresponsibly.

Explanations

To the first point D’Anselmi indicates that while Linux is not even mentioned in Microsoft’s 2004 report, a careful reader would equally be disappointed by not finding any reference to neighborhood air filters and smells in the McDonalds’ 2004 report…plus  many other organizational examples.

To the second point, he underlines that only a truly competitive environment can drive public, private, social, small, medium and large organizations in acting and reporting responsibly. Specifically, D’Anselmi claims this opens a huge opportunity for horizontal organizations (i.e. trade and professional associations) of vertical sector competitors (whether in commerce, business to business, consumer product, non profits or public sector).

For example, if small- or medium-sized enterprise (SME) associations lobbied for a fully competitive environment for all public, social sector as well as oligopolistic and monopolistic organizations, this would not only make SME associations more powerful—after all, they represent the backbone of many economies—but also contribute to level the playing field at a societal, political and economic level.

To the third point, he says that in preparing a CSR report the traditional act of listing of all the responsible behaviours is misguiding and only self serving (with the intent to fool), while it is much more challenging and useful to list all the irresponsible behaviours:

  • those that create unexpected and, in some cases, conscious consequences on others

In conclusion

These are three somewhat original observations, but there are many more equally compelling ones in Paolo D’Anselmi’s new offering, Values and Stakeholders in an Era of Responsibility. It’s in no way a “politically correct” book…and therefore a useful companion for all of us in such dire need of critical thinking as we do our jobs that revolve around PR and/or CSR, day in and day out.

I should mention that Paolo D’Anselmi consulted with McKinsey in writing this book—very good for one’s CV, but not so good for one’s flexibility!

To be sure he claims, with much wishful thinking (and somewhat using a hatchet):

To speak about what is not good is much more relevant because when you speak about yourself, it is safer to say the things you think are not good: let other people say good things about the organization.”

One other small criticism: in giving operational advice, D’Anselmi suggests a process to identify issues of social irresponsibility is also a heuristic one for which all sources are good:

  • research and debate within the company
  • the vocal busybodies outside the company
  • the media

…apparently not realizing that he is describing Chase’s 1976 issues management process.

Clearly, this is a strongly opinionated work, but it’s also well researched. The book reflects a highly curious viewpoint, yet always with an engineer’s underlying mentality of structural form.

* * *

Paolo D’Anselmi will be discussing his book’s contents in London (England) on the evening of Tuesday December 6, 2011, at the Italian Institute of Culture; soon after he leaves on a tour to discuss his book in various locations in the USA in the early months of 2012.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This seems an interesting read, but it does seem rather wishful to expect organisations to report their weaknesses without any legal obligation to do so. I am not convinced that this negative exposure would be driven by competition. It seems to me the only people who are proud to expose their failings are teenage boys (and their grown-up counterparts in the ‘gross out’ entertainment business). It is human nature to put forward your more positive side – we all do it everyday in reflecting expected norms of social behaviour.

    What I think the points here do raise are issues of activism and voices of opposition in society. There has been interesting work looking at the semiotics of annual reports which identify the lack of non-“corporate speak” in the narrative. That is, the text is vanilla rather than reflecting the richness of voices within stakeholders and publics engaged with that organisation. Likewise, the concept of PR as the internal activist (Holtzhausen) encourages more discussion within the organisation of social irresponsibility as proposed here.

    • My book has a few chapters filled with stories of ordinary irresponsibility. I hypothesize human egotism as my gospel and strive to avoid the pitfall of assuming people or organizations have any impulse to be good, especially when they declare so. However I show evidence, in chapters such as “The Backstage of Capitalism”, that – maybe unawares – organizations can be open.

      Indeed values is a handbook for new activism and new opposition as I show in chapters such as “Four Fruitful Generalizations: from CSR to Politics” and “What is to Be Done: Developing a Political Agenda”. If we think of opposition as a form of competition we get a lot of interesting results and maybe also a key to get out of the current stagnation of social perspective.

  2. So let me start by saying it’s difficult to provide a hard and fast response to this without reading the entire book for context. However, based on the review I’m struggling with the benefit of this approach.

    All public companies (certainly in the U.S.) already disclose competitive risk (and threats) as part of their financial reports.

    I’m all for transparency and accountability, but I’m not seeing the benefit of this. Maybe the book will explain.

    • In the book I explain why accountability should be extended to all organizations in chapters The irrelevant Politics, The Autarky of Public Administration and The Profits of Non-Profit.
      As for public companies, they are but a section of the economy, once we consider the social contribution of all the workforce. Moreover their way of being transparent and accountable appears to be improvable at least, as shown in chapters The Neighborhood Bullies, Implementation and The Unknown Stakeholder.

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