Business Leaders Debate: Are Corporate Social Responsibility and PR Necessary?

A recent UK PR Week headline article, PR and CSR departments? Ditch them, says former BP chief Browne, raises an interesting question.

“Businesses are there to co-operate, to work with society. Businesses have to be engaged very radically with everybody who is affected by them – [and]tell the truth,” Lord Browne stated.
But who will do this?

Lord Browne headed BP when there was a fatal explosion at the company’s Texas City, Texas plant on March 23, 2005 that claimed 15 lives and resulted in fines and awards. It was under his tenure that BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico received five citations for non-compliance (safety and pollution). That’s the same well that in 2010 caused one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

Did BP think crises like these would hurt its business? The simple answer is yes. That’s why BP carried out costly, multi-year brand communications and public affairs campaigns to win back the trust of consumers, business partners and other stakeholders.

However, those are the same CSR/PR programs that Lord Browne called a ‘prop’ which he says has “allowed a lot of companies to detach the activity of communicating and being involved with stakeholders almost into a side-pocket.”

So are corporate social responsibility programs important?

In a recent post How brands can change the world, Keith Weed, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Unilever, appears to believe integrating brands with issues can make a difference.

At the launch of the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development, Mr. Weed said:

“Brands can play a vital role in bringing the message of initiatives like the Global Goals to the masses. They offer the opportunity to reach an audience in a different way through how they are rooted in a person’s day-to-day life. Every day, for example, two billion people use a Unilever product. Brands’ familiarity and ubiquity afford them a massive advantage in engaging and informing a high volume of people to make a positive change. And that can only be a good thing.

“The more widely known these Global Goals are, and the more widely they are understood by everyone, the more politicians will take them seriously, finance them properly, refer to them frequently and make them work.”

So, while Lord Browne sees

“. . . there’s obviously some sort of interface needed [with the media]. . . there’s too much which is unrelated to the reality of what is actually happening and too little understanding of how companies are affecting the different bits of society they are involved in.”

What he might really be saying is that CSR and PR need to be at the ‘table’. As Mr. Weed put it,

“They [brands]can be a voice for change, for exposing truths, for championing good. One of Unilever’s brands, Ben & Jerry’s, is a fantastic example of this process in action. Their very public support of climate justice, marriage equality, and peace-building places the brand at the heart of the debate in a way that connects with people in an authentic way.

“A brand’s most important role on this issue is arguably how they can help people connect to a political process that will impact the world they live in, that their children will inherit, to act as citizens themselves, not simply consumers. That is a brand’s role as a citizen, to help consumers be citizens too.”

So, should CSR and PR be “ditched” as Lord Browne suggests?

No. If CSR and PR are fully integrated with the business, they play a critical role connecting a company to its stakeholders.

Image source: Deepwater Horizon Response

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About Author

Chris Sorek
CSR/ Communications Consultant

Chris Sorek has more than two decades of global experience in communication, public affairs and community relations. Chris started his career as a journalist and editor for newspapers and magazines. He has also worked in the private sector for financial institutions, technology companies, mining companies, and agencies as well as for non-profits on humanitarian, shelter, and behavior change issues. Chris has a master’s degree in international marketing and communications and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, US and Latin America.