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We agreed in our last post that PR practitioners are responsible for the client’s/company’s reputation. Though PR pros may not plan every charity event or directly handle customer service complaints, it is our job to build and protect a company’s image. As today’s businesses  look to become more socially responsible, the role of public relations to create corporate social responsibility programs becomes more visible.

Though it’s important for a company to operate ethically, not every organization is driven by charity. Especially when economic times are tough, a company needs to identify what’s important and where they should focus their efforts and funds.  So…

How important is Corporate Social Responsibility?

CHRIS:

After business ethics disasters like Enron and WorldCom, the burden of  earning trust lies with each individual business.  You could be in business to save the lives of third-world puppies with eating disorders, and people would still be skeptical. Thanks to a slew of mistakes by a few bad apples, everyone starts behind the eight-ball in the reputation game, and the court of public opinion is quick to turn on you if you make a mistake.

In this new business environment, both for-profit and non-profit organizations need to build and maintain a good reputation to be successful – and being a socially responsible entity is the first step. Showing that you care about more than just yourself has always been important, but the need to show this will only increase as GenX and GenYers start to take the reins of big business.

AMANDA:

Just because a business appears to be responsible doesn’t mean it is actually doing the “right” thing. Enron appeared to be a model corporate citizen before its collapse, donating hundreds of thousands to philanthropic efforts despite the company’s hidden financial struggles. Appearing to be socially responsible actually helped Enron bilk shareholders out of billions in stock and benefits by maintaining a trustworthy facade.

It is obviously impossible to be certain what an organization’s motives for social responsibility initiatives are. However, even a company with the purest intentions should always put its stakeholders first. This means following through on the organization’s mission statement and ensuring the company’s viability before embarking on initiatives to help others.  If a company doesn’t put its own interests first, it won’t be around to continue helping others.

CHRIS:

I agree that a company must be responsible to its STAKEholders – but these constituencies include more than just SHAREholders. And I disagree that you can’t identify TRUE corporate social responsibility. It’s about actions, not just words. And it’s a necessary part of business in the 21st century.

Programs that are environmentally friendly or charitable ultimately help the company by building trust among employees, customers and business partners. People want to do business with good people. Though the return on CSR expenses may not be reflected on the annual balance sheet, ethical actions are  long-term investments in a company’s reputation that can be appreciate by shareholders and stakeholders alike.

AMANDA:

No doubt a company’s long-term reputation – and perhaps consequently its bottom line – would benefit from investments in social efforts. However, especially in the current economic environment, there are no guarantees on a company’s lifespan. Businesses, like individuals, are feeling pressure to make more budget-friendly decisions. A college student might opt to shop at Wal-Mart even though he believes the corporation is evil. Likewise, a company may need to outsource work with foreign businesses when it would be more socially responsible to stimulate the local economy by working with a more expensive domestic company.

To ensure a business survives, it must look hard at its short-term budget and make changes to establish financial stability. If a company is doing well, it should by all means contribute to the community that is helping it succeed. But a company struggling to stay afloat simply cannot afford to put vital funds into initiatives that won’t result in short-term profit. A company that goes under can no longer contribute to any community causes, so organizations should be careful to make sure their philanthropic efforts don’t put them out of business.

CHRIS:

I’m not saying a for-profit company should abandon its business plan in order to “save the whales.” But I am saying that a company needs to be responsible no matter what its financial situation is. And that means acting ethically even in hard times. Just because the economy is bad doesn’t mean a company can abandoned its principles. And small contributions can still be made – even if this means using company resources to promote employee contributions to charity. United Way campaigns are a perfect example of this.

But I’m wondering what companies have been doing over the last year – and how that’s affected NPOs. Have you cut back charitable contributions in tune with the economy? If so, have you cut all funds? Let us know what you think.

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As young pros in the communications industry, navigating sticky ethical dilemmas isn’t always easy.  Working on behalf of our companies/clients, PR pros generally function as the go-between when our bosses are looking to control what messages reach the public. It’s nothing new, but PR practitioners have both succeeded and failed at conveying messages the “right” way.

But as PR practitioners, what’s more important: Being loyal to our employers OR loyal to the public?

amandaskepface2

AMANDA:

I am by no means well-versed in the professional world, but as a cynical observer, here’s how I see it: If you’re writing the checks, you’re making the rules. This isn’t unique to public relations, of course, but it seems easier than in most industries to let personal opinions and beliefs affect our work. Clients aren’t paying you to agree with them; they are paying you for a service. We are the liaisons between these organizations and the public; we are simply the bullhorn, the channel the client uses to spread a message. We are being paid to communicate and gain positive attention on behalf of a client, not to decide whether the client is responsible or morally in the right – if you have really strong misgivings about a client’s behavior, you probably shouldn’t take the account.

Regardless of personal opinion, I am being employed to serve a client’s PR needs to the best of my ability. If I can’t do my job well – for personal objections or any other reason – I need to step away.

chrisfaceCHRIS:

I agree that it’s our job to represent the view points of our clients in the media. But it’s not our job to lie. Not only is the idea of “massaging the truth” one that can damage the entire PR industry, but I would argue that mis-representing the truth is never in the client’s best business interest. A company can only hide from the truth for so long, and in the digitally connect world we live, that timeline is growing shorter every day. My recommendation would be to take corrective action as a company so that the PR pro can portray the company accurately to the media. If you want a spin artist, try these guys.  No pun intended, Little Miss Amanda.

AMANDA:

I hate the term “spin doctor” as much as the next PR enthusiast, but either way, I’m not saying we should lie. Framing does not equal lying. When you are working on behalf of a client, you are being employed to present that client in the best light possible. Should you tell blatant lies to make the client look better? We all know the answer to that one. But are critics like John Stauber right to generalize and paint all PR pros as deceptive, conniving lie machines? Hell, no. Presenting your client in a more flattering light is not wrong.

We all do it – you don’t trumpet your own downfalls to others in order to maintain a positive image. Maintaining a client’s image is no different, and highlighting the positive while mitigating the negative is inherent in all of us to some degree. Some PR pros might engage in controversial practices, but that’s no different than any other profession. Not all accountants are dirty, not all cops are crooked and not all PR pros are liars.

CHRIS:

Ballon boy on CNN (or not).

I guess my point is that we need to look at all suggestions from upper management subjectively. Whether they’re asking you to “spin” a situation to make the company look favorable or requesting something else dishonest.  Let’s take the recent events of Balloon Boy as an example – or to clarify, the balloon boy hoax. Suppose you represented the Heene family and they approached you with the idea to pitch a deceptive storyline in order to gain national media exposure? Are you still going to play the role of “bull-horn” and let them use your professional talents unethically? I’m not.

And to me this goes beyond the obvious ethical ramifications. Looking forward, any business success garnered by the Heene family will be tainted with their inauthentic burst onto the national stage and will likely be short-lived (at least I hope our society is better than that).

AMANDA:

Hmm… well, I agree in the fact that we need to use discretion when deciding which PR tactics to implement on behalf of a client. Sometimes clients or management get excited over specific tactics that would actually provide little benefit to their end goals. As PR pros, we need to think critically about what strategies will ultimately be most effective and provide our counsel from there. Should we be puppets? Not what I’m saying. But we need to listen to a client’s objective and then serve it in the best way possible, regardless of our opinion. Do I believe Mr. Heene’s theories about aliens and an imminent Armageddon? Negative; like a lot of people, I think the guy’s got a couple screws loose. But if I agreed to represent his cause, it would be my responsibility to make strategic decisions that would best serve his interests.

CHRIS:

The joy I’m getting from role-playing as PR counsel for the Heene family could be considered slightly abnormal. But I’m gonna give our readers a chance to do the same. I think Amanda and I are in agreement on some things here (miraculously), but I’m wondering where to draw the line? Is it based on personal pride or ethics? If you represented the Heene’s what would you have suggested? Let us know what you think.

As young pros in the communications industry, navigating sticky ethical dilemmas isn’t always easy.  Working on behalf of our companies/clients, PR pros frequently function as the go-between when our bosses are looking to control messages in the media. It’s nothing new, but in the relatively breif history of our profession, PR practitioners have both succeeded (http://www.icmrindia.org/casestudies/catalogue/Business%20Ethics/BECG015.htm) and failed (http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy.html) to get the right message out.

But as PR practitioners, what’s more important: Being loyal to our employers or loyal to the public?

AMANDA: I’m not wise to the PR world by any means, but as a cynical observer, here’s how I see it: If you’re writing the checks, you’re making the rules. This isn’t unique to public relations, of course, but it seems easier than in most industries to let personal opinions and beliefs affect our work. Clients aren’t paying you to agree with them; they are paying you for a service. We are the liaisons between these organizations and the public; we are simply the bullhorn, the medium the client uses to spread a message. We are being paid to communicate and gain positive attention on behalf of a client, not to decide whether the client is responsible or morally in the right – if you have really strong misgivings about a client’s behavior, you probably shouldn’t take the account.

Regardless of personal opinion, I am being employed to serve a client’s PR needs to the best of my ability. If I can’t do my job well – for personal objections or any other reason – I need to step away.

CHRIS: I agree that it’s our job to represent the view points of our clients in the media. But it’s not our job to lie. Not only is the idea of “massaging the truth” one that can damage the entire PR industry, but I would argue that mis-representing the truth is never in the client’s best business interest. A company can only hide from the truth for so long, and in the digitally connect world we live, that timeline is growing shorter every day. My recommendation would be to take corrective action as a company so that the PR pro can portray the company accurately to the media. If you want a spin artist, try these guys. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=givZsEAW80k) No pun intended, Little Miss Amanda.

AMANDA: I hate the term “spin doctor” as much as the next PR enthusiast, but either way, I’m not saying we should lie. Framing, as I prefer to think of it, does not equal lying. When you are working on behalf of a client, you are being employed to present that client in the best light possible. Should you tell blatant lies to make the client look better? We all know the answer to that one. But are critics like John Stauber right to generalize all PR pros as deceptive, conniving lie machines (http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0901-05.htm) ? Hell, no. Highlighting the positive and mitigating the negative about your client is not wrong. We all do it – you don’t trumpet your own downfalls to others in order to maintain a positive image. Maintaining a client’s image is no different, and highlighting the positive while mitigating the negative is inherent in all of us to some degree. Some PR pros might engage in controversial practices, but that’s no different than any other profession. Not all accountants are dirty, not all cops are crooked and not all PR pros are liars.

CHRIS: I guess my point is that we need to look at all suggestions from upper management subjectively.  Let’s take the recent events of Balloon Boy as an example – or to clarify, the balloon boy hoax (http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/10/18/colorado.balloon.investigation/index.html) Suppose you represented the Heene family and they approached you with the idea to pitch a deceptive storyline in order to gain national media exposure? Are you still going to play the role of “bull-horn” and let them use your talents as a professional merely as a tool? I’m not.

And to me this goes beyond the obvious ethical ramifications. Looking forward, any business success garnered by the Heene family will be tainted with their inauthentic burst onto the national stage and will likely be short-lived (at least I hope our society is better than that). http://gawker.com/5384375/deflated-balloon-boys-the-story-of-our-ugly-sorry-era

AMANDA: Hmm… well, I agree in the fact that you need to use discretion when deciding on what PR tactics to implement on behalf of a client. Sometimes clients or management get excited over specific tactics that would actually provide little benefit to their end goals. As PR pros, we need to think critically about what strategies will ultimately be most effective and provide our counsel from there. Should we be puppets? Not what I’m saying. But we need to listen to a client’s objective and then serve it in the best way possible, regardless of our opinion. Do I believe Mr. Heene’s theories about aliens and an imminent Armageddon (http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/pals_airing_balloon_dad_criminal_A1rvE19eLczSLW47nwTHHK) ? Heck no; like a lot of people, I think the guy’s got a couple screws loose. But if I agreed to represent his cause, it would be my responsibility to make strategic decisions that would best serve his interests.

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