Sponsoring a sports club at the company’s headquarters? The sponsorship of a museum? Donations for people in need? Charitable work by employees? Companies that want to take on “Corporate Social Responsibility”, or CSR for short, can choose from these and many other options.
The discovery of corporate responsibility
There have been times when such measures seemed unnecessary and were uncommon – probably most obviously during the Industrial Revolution. And there are theories of corporate action that cannot rationalize such measures, perhaps most effectively Milton Friedman’s shareholder value approach.
A systematic and now widely accepted basis for corporate social responsibility is provided by the stakeholder approach. It involves the discovery that other social actors beyond those who are contractually bound to the company (investors, employees, customers) have a role that is crucial to the company’s success. If this is the case, then it may well be sensible to use part of the profits to do good.
Companies must take responsibility for their core business
But as deserving as individual CSR measures are, it has recently become clear that thinking like the one just outlined simply falls short. Assuming responsibility does not only, and not even primarily, extend to giving away something from profits and thus doing good in the environment. Responsibility relates to the core business processes. Why is this so? Three insights play a role here.
- On the one hand, entrepreneurial action sometimes has negative consequences, for example social and ecological ones. This is the subject of responsibility.
- Secondly, this responsibility cannot be dismissed by pointing to a lack of ecological room for maneuver: Companies have many options for assuming responsibility. Among them are perhaps some that could lead to market exit, but always many where this is not the case.
- Third, in many cases, no other actors can effectively assume responsibility, especially state actors. This is mainly due to globalization and a general economic and technological differentiation.
It follows from these points that it makes sense to hold companies accountable for their corporate actions. And this leads to stakeholders today also articulating this fact to the extent that the challenges are intensifying: Companies are expected to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero, to fight corruption, and to monitor compliance with social and environmental standards in their supply chains. Currently, against the backdrop of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, they are also increasingly scrutinizing and, if necessary, correcting their corporate actions with a view to foreign and security policy aspects.
Responsibility in communications consulting
We base our consulting services for our clients on these interrelationships. We are firmly convinced that communication can only be successful in the long term if a company tries to live up to its responsibility continuously, sincerely and in an exchange with critical stakeholders in particular.
But what does this mean for the communications industry itself? What does it mean for consultancies like FleishmanHillard, for those responsible for corporate communications, for NGOs, for scientists who communicate publicly, etc.? The question is important, and the answer may not be trivial, because experience shows that self-application of what one recommends to others is not always easy.
John Langshaw Austin, in his “How to Do Things With Words” (1955) (still very readable today), first got to the point that we do things when we communicate. And because this is so, every:r communicator also bears responsibility. Companies whose core business is communication must therefore ask themselves how they can live up to this responsibility.
Power of True
As in other industries, it is not enough to invoke legality. After all, a large proportion of irresponsible actions are also legal. The responsibility of the communications industry that goes beyond this lies in its shared responsibility for a functioning public discourse. We communicators must be among those whose work can and must be read as an expression of loyalty to democracy, pluralism and truth. A variety of professional standards can be derived from this. Here are three that are particularly obvious:
- No communication for illegitimate causes.
- No covert communications – senders of messages must be identifiable.
- No untrue or misleading messages.
What are concrete examples of orientation to such standards? In the area of climate protection, for example, at FleishmanHillard they mean that we do not work for organizations whose representatives deny man-made climate change or its adverse consequences. And that we are not available for projects that can be classified as greenwashing. We also support the introduction and further development of the lobby register to increase the transparency of political communication.
Some objections are obvious: Who decides on legitimacy? And is it really always easy to determine what is misleading – in a business that in many cases can be described as competition between different narratives? Here, too, self-application of our methods is helpful. “Taking responsibility” means developing a recognizable attitude in confrontation with stakeholder perceptions and expectations. The prerequisite for assuming responsibility is therefore already familiarizing oneself with the interests of various stakeholder groups.
And as is so often the case, it can be unclear in individual cases what is right and wrong. It can happen that different assessments cannot be resolved even through intensive exchange. In practice, however, a compass along the above standards proves helpful, even if it cannot answer every question.
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