On the ambiguity of public relations and corporate social responsibility. Michael Porter speaks out on the Harvard Business Review. Moving out of the usual dilemma..

I am nearing the end of this highly intense and fantastic cultural experience of teaching global relations and intercultural communication at NYU’s Master of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communication (see earlier post) and the last session will be next Wednesday when every student will have five minutes to present to the whole class the core concepts of a 15 page final essay. I will certainly ask permission to my students to publish here what I consider to be the best essays… as they fit perfectly with the spirit of this blog. Look out for some truly excellent papers next week!

Last Wednesday we instead had a very open and in depth discussion on the structural ambiguity of public relations as it relates specifically also to corporate social responsibility and from the perspective of the new global model based on generic principles and specific applications. We also received a report from our two student ambassadors, Louisa Bargeron and Leah Talatinian, who had just returned from London where in CIPR’s new headquarters in St.James Square (if you haven’t been there yet, you must make an effort to do so…a truly magnificent location…) they presented to some 20 senior accolites of the xprl project (see previous posts), on behalf of a larger group of my students who have been working on the assignment for over a month, a first draft of a global public relations program to enrol the professional community in endorsing, adopting and standing behind xprl. I won’t tell you what happened in London until I receive a full report from the steering committee in order to avoid misrepresentation on this venture which is so important for our professional future. But I can in the meantime invite you to see here NYU XPRL.ppt what my students came up with and ask you to comment….But for now, back to the csr/pr relationship. First of all you will be, I am sure… happy to hear that Michael Porter from Harvard University, possibly today’s best known management scholar, wrote a truly brilliant article in this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review (I wish I could put it up here for you to read but I can’t, although you may access a brief summary hbr december 06.doc and the possibility to order a copy…please do…it’s really worth it!) and authoritatively joined the growing troops -sparked by The Economist’s cyclical and critical arguments- which roughly say that CSR, as it is implemented today, is only just a fad and a public relations stunt! So what else is new? A couple of years ago, following the first successful attempt conducted by Jean Valin for the Global Alliance, to issue a global ethics protocol (not a code, mind you!) which still stands today as the best effort ever made to actualize the basic ethics of our profession, the Alliance attempted again to repeat this success by developing a first draft carefully prepared by John Paluszek, senior counsel for Ketchum and ambassador at large of the GA- of a consensus policy defining the correct relationship between csr and pr. This time however the draft found itself caught in a cross fire to which I also actively contributed. If interested, you can read here what John wrote at the time as well as what I immediately responded, then followed by the CIPR’s position. And that was that… Much has happened and has been said and written since, but a permanent ambiguity over the issue remains. Certainly the function of public relations has greatly benefited by the csr fad. Not only because in many (most?) organizations csr efforts today fall under the responsibility of pr with the consequence of added budgets and resources, but also because the mere reporting of csr hands over to pr the ‘license’ to monitor just about every aspect of corporate behaviour, thus greatly adding to the function’s understanding of how the organization ticks and the opportunity to enhance more coherent horizontal values and behaviour. One could say that no single corporate fad in many decades has had such a relevance for the growth of the pr function. On the other hand most stakeholder research efforts in all countries confirm a growing mistrust versus corporate csr efforts, interpreted as ‘window dressing’ and, yes, ‘public relations’. The ambiguity is embedded in the typical chicken and egg question: °is csr mistrusted because it is implemented by public relations (and in this case, as successful csr actively involves every single function of the organization, shouldn’t public relations just be in charge of communicating csr rather than being responsible for of ipolicies and programs?)or°does mistrust in csr contribute to worsening the already bad reputation of public relations (and in this case, shouldn’t the latter be very wary of rejoicing when it is given that responsibility?).In other words:

°is pr going to be the kiss of death for csr (by handing over to pr the baby is thrown away with the dirty water..)?


°is it more likely to be viceversa (the fall of csr will only confirm once the stigma that everything that public relations touches is doomed to be considered just window dressing)?

In any case, forgetting for a moment the traditional blow at pr in the HBR article I mentioned, should we not immediately jump on the opportunity to say that yes, Michael Porter is right when he rationalizes that strategic csr relies on the whole organization deciding to review its processes in order to create added value both to society and to itself? We know very well -although we don’t necessarily have to shout it, less we fall once more into the previous trap- that this process is the same the more concerned and aware segments of the global public relations community refer to as two-way, tendentially symmetric relationship building. And, funnily, this reminds me of the recent heated communication for development-public relations debate (see previous post).We should operate to transform the Porter risk into an opportunity and convince our peers, even before our other stakeholders, that this what we all should be doing.

To conclude, I would like to suggest that the Porter interpretation of csr is the managerial description of those effective public relations that many of us are thinking, writing, teaching about and also doing in the marketplace.

Your opinions?


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6 Replies to “On the ambiguity of public relations and corporate social responsibility. Michael Porter speaks out on the Harvard Business Review. Moving out of the usual dilemma..

  1. At the present time, I’m writing my graduation tesi, and I’m trying to answer at the chicken and egg question. I analise a real process of environmental CSR in a small town in Friuli Venezia Giulia,Italy, developing by small and medium enterprises together with associations and local administrations. These SMEs don’t communicate their CSR activity but they have a very good reputation, also related to their environmental engagement. Perhaps, we can distinguish between the communication of CSR and the communication for the CSR. The first one could be a one or two way process developed ONLY by a pr staff, while the second one is a whole process where pr staff helps CSR reaching its issue and objective.
    In many cases, some tools of CSR(like cause related marketing or reports) are used only like a communication tool, but first of all they must be instruments (used by pr staff) to run the relationship with different stakeholders. If CSR is not a fad into the organization, pr are not a fad. Too much trivial?

  2. complimenti. ho in mente di tornare presto a farti visita su questo post.
    irrimediabile illuminista: è da aggiungere a sfigato. saluti
    paolo dans

  3. Interesting to see Michael Porter joining the discussion on CSR. An earlier article from Marakon Associates, drawing on the UK’s Business in the Community experience makes some of the same points that he does. There is also an important forum for discussion of the points that he is raising available through the European Academy for Business in Society (EABIS). In these high level academic discussions of the developing importance of CSR, public relations is not included, except when referred to in Porter’s terms as a cosmetic activity. A new report from Ashridge Management School, referenced on the EABIS site (www.eabis.org) suggests that CSR without attention to internal HR management changes is ‘simply public relations.’

    We need to find ways to insert the public relations perspective, and an appreciation of the potential contribution that public relations can make to strategic decision-making regarding CSR, into these discussions.

  4. The code word to get this message past security, for me, this time, is “brand” and it’s ironic.

    I’m in the process of writing a story for O’Dwyer’s PR Daily about barnd, and one of the people featured thinks of brand and reputation as being congruent.

    Anyway, definitions are needed for everything, but, assuming the best…

    In my early days as a consultant, and in my time as a PR person at Northern Electric – Northern Telecom (now Nortel) and then CNCP Telecommunications (think of it as sort of like Western Union back in the days itwas a private telecom network,not a money shipper) it ws clean to me that PR pros were responsible for all aspects of an organization’s reputation.

    In many departments, the people there were doing an OK job, or a betterjob than that, and we did not have problems with them. At Nortel, we had to have a word with the CFO about the company delaying paying invoices, but event he personnel department was honourable.

    We in PR were responsible for donations to the arts, education, communitieis in general; marketing paid sponsrship fees that were sort of contribution-like for some charity events that helped the organization’s reputation but also were logo-intensive. (Imagine a charity run where every circle of the track resulted inhigher contribtuions, with our banners flying all over the place.

    But before Marketing could get involved, it reviewed the project wiht PR (at Norhern, me, specifically) Same with all ads, regardless of topic or purpose, because ads related to reputation.

    I sat in on the meetings where recruitiung ads were developed, tomake sure the company was portrayed honestly. Again, the predisposition of the personnel people was to be honest, so this was not very hard.

    We were constrained by some laws when we wnated to give away telco services. Regardless, when someone wanted to do something like this, PR got invoilved, approved it or said no.

    So, to me, CSR is a PR responsibility, because CSR is reputation-intensive.

    BEside, who do you trust to look after this? Lawyers? That’s a joke. And HR departments in 2006? Their job is to get rid of people in their 50s, cut pay of other employees, trump up ways to reduce or deny benefits, etc., and manage, throught he Compensation department of HR, to lie about the dates on stock options for senior executives.


  5. Toni,
    Those who say that CSR is a fad don’t get it as far as I am concerned. When an organisation adopts CSR as an operating premise and as I ahve said from the beginning on this- is entirely committed from the CEO on down, it is using a popular strategy that goes to the core and essence of two-way symetrical PR. Although I fully recognise that you can have a CSR program, be committed form the top down and still be one way or two way asymetrical. To use another analogy borrowed from the marketing world, those who think a brand is a logo are probably the same ones who say CSR is a fad. They dont get it. To continue with my analogy, a brand is what you say, do and aspire to be. CSR is a manifestation of the desire to say,be and aspire to be everything that your PR program should be about. It should be at your core- not on the periphery. If that is the case, how can it be a fad?

    PS. The global ethics protocol being implemented by the GA IS based on a single global code of ethics (minimum standard) that we developped and was adopted by the GA council. The protocol is what allows our partners some flexibility of implementation rather than a ridgid application of the words we came up with during our work to produce a global code.

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