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.