By Michael Willard
Is it okay to ask “what’s in it for the company” before embarking on a Corporate Social Responsibility spending spree for a pet project of an orchid club of which the boss’s wife happens to be president?
You bet. But it can be dicey, particularly in an age when good public relations gigs don’t grow on trees and the competition for them is like a scene from the flick “Gladiator”.
Let’s face it, the college tuition for the twins comes due with regularity and the little lady is perusing the Macy’s catalog with a gleam in her eye and commercial lust in her heart.
But, I say suck up by being right and let the advice fly. You can always find work — somewhere.
When I gave an emphatic affirmative answer to a Swedish CEO a couple of years ago, he was shocked at my callousness. “What? My God man we’re talking about a charity project for abandoned puppies.”
His facial expression seemed to wonder what rock from which I had slithered. I was sympathetic. I like puppies.
Many charged with implementing CSR programs feel it is about charity. If the company contributes to saving the whales (the Florida manatee, the snail darter), the way to corporate heaven is paved with rose pedals.
Maybe it is, but in business we rarely dwell on the metaphysical, preferring to keep both feet firmly planted on Mother Earth. We believe corporations are in business to provide great products and services and to maximize profits for shareholders while paying a fair wage to employees.
Diversions from this are misguided, even foolhardy.
This doesn’t mean the company shouldn’t have a corporate conscience. It should and it must. Over many years with my own companies, I have found that smart CSR is not only good for the soul but also the pocketbook.
In any CSR program, there must be a serious objective, and tossing money at a favorite charity doesn’t necessarily pass the legitimacy test. That is unless it is part of a coordinated program aimed at enhancing shareholder value by brandishing the company’s image.
Image is intangible. While it isn’t specifically found on the balance sheet, it is just as valuable — probably more so — than physical capital holdings, stocks, and bonds or money in the bank.
But, by and large, CSR begins at home.
I am reminded of the old coal mining anthem sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “16 Tons”.
One line goes like this: “You haul 16 tons, what-da-ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
That was a coal company sorely in need of a CSR program. It conjures up coal camp shacks, lethal mining conditions, and a smudge-faced worker who can’t leave the job because he’s too deep in debt to the company.
On the other hand, the corporate responsible mining company does everything possible to make a dangerous profession safe, including training and providing modern equipment; and, it is creatively benevolent to its employees by providing good wages, health insurance, and other benefits.
If the corporation is sending out press releases about its do-good activities around the world but has not provided a good workplace, its view of CSR is hypocritical at best. This includes the need for good stewardship of the environment.
The late Harold Burson, my former boss, and friend liked to relate a story about misguided CSR. This PR pioneer referred to the satiric Charles Dickens novel “Bleak House”, published in 1853.
Harold’s narrative went like this:
“One of Dickens’s most memorable characters is Mrs. Jellaby. She espoused every imaginable worthy cause, her latest the plight of the natives of Boorie-goola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger. She called it her African project and it occupied her near full time.
“Then Dickens tells us the state of Mrs. Jellaby’s personal and family affairs. Her house is strewn with rubbish, the furniture, and floors covered with dust and grime. Her children are in a dire state of neglect, badly clothed and unfed.
“But Mrs. Jellaby doesn’t seem to notice, much less care. Mrs. Jellaby is obsessed with her Africa project.”
The moral Harold went on to relate is that the lesson of Mrs. Jellaby applies not just to social critics, self-appointed or otherwise, but to modern-day corporations.
“A corporation’s first duty, as I see it, is to manage its affairs properly and profitably,” said the PR great.
(PHOTO: Willard introducing the late, great PR institution, Harold Burson, during a boat trip with staff on the Moscow River in 2005)