«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
A graduate student, whose campaign represented the Red Cross after it had allegedly mismanaged/misappropriated 9/11funds, regretted not conducting more extensive research, particularly a survey, to measure the level of public trust in the Red Cross. If there had been sufficient evidence of a lack of trust, she said, she would have intensified efforts to rebuild trust.
Public relations students respond to extreme crises.
We have seen above that students recognize the need for trust and truthfulness. This relates also to the above-mentioned 9/11 projects, which centered on entities affected by the terrorist attacks and reinforced "public relations' crucial role in restoring confidence in the institutions of civil society" (Kovacs, 2005, p. 305). In these projects, "students saw that relationship building and the implementation of measures to increase public comfort and trust went hand-in-hand and were a precondition of success in other areas (p. 307). One said: "The trust of the public is what the airline industry needs at this point in time. Another offered, "I learned…that trust is the most important thing…if you are truthful…it is very hard for them to
have a negative view of your organization." His group represented the NYPD post 9/11:
We knew that the NYPD needed to establish more trust between them and the people of NYC. We also knew that in order to keep a good relationship with the 454 people the NYPD needed to be friendly to the children of the city…We wanted to create an open trusting relationship with everyone in the city, while bringing in the amount of officers needed to keep the streets safe. We wanted to portray the NYPD as a friendly but effective force that without bias will work to keep the streets safe for New Your residents and travelers.
So, inherently, the 9/11 projects were based on an inherent commitment to social responsibility,
although some students expressed this as a need to be flexible in the face of the unpredictable:
…I also learned that running a public relations campaign depends widely on the situations…thrown at you. Things change on a daily basis, and you have to be able to change with the world. If another attack had happened…we would have had to find a whole new way of looking at our project, without any notice.
Student comments, above, demonstrated an awareness of communal responsibility and the need to protect both public and private sector institutions that serve the community. They also conveyed a sense of the urgent need for disclosure and transparency in times of crisis.| In general, the more severe the crisis, the clearer the student recognition that truth (defined as "what is known at that time")-or specifically, truthful communication and open disclosure, are essential.
Student comments about ethics and CSR: Corporate communication case studies I anticipated that many of the corporate communication students would have some initial difficulty working with some of CSR concepts and so, there were multiple methods used to reinforce the CSR's central role in corporate communication. First, each semester, the class was divided into groups. Each group's chapter presentation highlighted corporate communication principles and functions, as illustrated by one case study per chapter. Although these were not specifically ethics or CSR-oriented, the chapter case studies presented an opportunity to discuss both effective and ineffective communication strategies. For example, Argenti (2009) cited an executive's indirect engagement with employees and failure to communicate critical information directly, on-site, at each Carson container plant, as working against organizational goals.
In addition, guest speakers, handouts, and audiovisual aids further drove home the need for ethical corporate behaviors that support sustainable development, respect human rights, and communicate transparently. An advertising executive and a public information officer from the Australian consulate (which not long before, had to publicly confront its government's role in the oppression of aboriginal children (The Stolen Generations) had contrasting outlooks on CSR. I referred students to a number of Web sites that supported corporate citizenship, CSR, and sustainable development. They included Ethisphere (2010), The Global Compact (2010), The Global Alliance (2010), and Business for Social Responsibility (2010). The visits of representatives from the Global Compact and Ethisphere had to be deferred but we reviewed both organizations' sustainability and human rights goals and discussed the concepts on Ethisphere's Web sites as supplementary perspectives.
More broadly, the corporate communication term projects were grounded in the notion that CSR should be at the core of all corporate decision making. Students chose a substantive challenge to a corporation and analyzed it. They identified the mission statement and looked for corporate codes of conduct or CSR frameworks. They also looked for an external framework for CSR and compared how the organization's response measured up to both the company's standards and that of the external bar, in terms of CSR.
Student choices for case study topics. The case studies for the corporate communication projects ran the gamut of notable mishaps. Among them, notably, were: Mattel's problems with lead paint toys, allegation of Haliburton's corruption and other breaches, Nestle and the baby formula 455 Coors Brewing Company after allegations of discrimination; Coca Cola's use of contaminated water in its Indian plant, Pepsi and the syringe crisis, Delta and its crib recalls, accusations against Sony regarding alleged unfair practices Bausch and Lomb after contaminated eye solution; the American Red Cross after the 9/11 funds controversy; the United Way Scandal;
McDonalds after animal activist challenges; Nike and labor issues; contamination in Gerber baby foods (again!); multiple problems faced by Sony Corporation; contamination of water in Indian Coca Cola plants; Pespi and its syringe crisis; the Nestle infant formula crisis; the recall of Mattel toys -manufactured in China, the Ford Explorer debacle. There were also a number of cases of lower-profile organization, such as Delta Corporation, which experienced a crib recall.
In addition, one case study explored a lobbying effort by an industrial coalition, i.e., members of the UK airline industry, to reduce emissions. Of those students who identified corporations' frameworks for ethics and CSR, only a few critically evaluated whether the norms set forth were genuinely integrated into the companies' operations. In some case (e.g., Merck, below), some quotes taken from company literature appear more rhetoric than a call to CSR action.
Student identification of guidelines and frameworks for ethics and CSR. There was no consistent definition of CSR Most students identified some tangible declaration of values, ethics, or CSR, from their chosen case study organization, whether as part of a mission statement, code of conduct, or other document. Most of these references were vague; only a few provided citations referencing these values, ethical guidelines, or aspects of CSR. One student explored Merck and
its mixed CSR record in the Vioxx debacle:
Merck's corporate responsibility is rooted in listening, responding and working towards a healthier future. George W. Merck's philosophy remains the foundation of Merck's approach to corporate responsibility today. Merck recognizes its responsibility to each and every customer. Ensuring confidence is crucial…The Merck Code of Conduct encapsulates Merck's mission and commitment to scientific excellence, ethics, and integrity.
Without further explication, these sounded like empty platitudes, and yet this student was able to objectively review the Vioxx case and differentiate between its lack of transparency in keeping Vioxx on the market (when initial studies indicated dangers for patients) and the company's ultimate transparency in recalling the drug and urging consumers to seek medical attention.
She was also able to relate Merck's framework to specific criteria in that of the Global Compact's, although she conceded that "…the principles concerning human rights and protecting the environment are the most prevalent in Merck's business practices." She recommended that Merck incorporate a COP (Communication on Progress), which is a disclosure required of Global Compact members, made to all stakeholders (e.g., investors, consumers, civil society,, progress made in implementing the ten principles of the UN Global Compact, and supporting broad UN development goals…" (Global Compact, 2009) Only some students referred to external frameworks as points of comparison, yet the frameworks added significant weight to CSR and ethical norms. The external frameworks chosen were: Goodcorporation.com, Johnson &Johnson (for the Bausch and Lomb Company), Business for Social Responsibility, and the PRSA Code, and the Global Compact. The Global Compact
was chosen by three students. According to one who chose Goodcorporation.com as its bar:
(it) says (and rightfully so) that a company should think about the consumer during the entire product lifecycle and that the company acknowledges and uses consumer input…The website also goes on to say that companies should consider 456 the impact of their decision on their suppliers as well as making sure that their suppliers engage in safe practices.
Some of the students did not choose an external CSR framework to compare with that of their chosen organization, which was disappointing and something worth investigating. I had explained the project format, given them guidelines, posted relevant materials on Blackboard and directed students to other sites for assistance, yet few attempted to extrapolate how such frameworks might set a higher bar for organizations. This was a sticking point, given the frameworks' pedagogical importance and their use in critical assessment of CSR. In the discussion section, I consider why this occurred and possible ways to address the problem.
Student observations on case studies: CSR Definitions and Assessment.
Most students neither attempted nor clearly defined CSR. Many settled for saying that it was important to have. Here a student of the Nestle infant formula attempts to identify CSR.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has played a dominant role in business practices. It's a form of self regulation and policy. Companies and organizations set up ethical standards and norms for themselves. The business then does its best to live up to its own expectations. CSR also helps to govern a company's decision-making process.
She related this notion of CSR to Nestle's cultural process of "Creating Shared Value," which extends to the larger communities in the countries where it operates.
The student researching the highly controversial Nike case tried to describe CSR:
A company's Corporate Social Responsibility is a way for the company to ensure that they adhere to labor laws and… remain righteous… By following …CSR… a company remains open and honest with the public and therefore abides to a certain code of ethics. By being… accountable for their actions, companies are less likely to evade their duties to their workers and the environment.
An international student of the Bausch and Lomb contamination case, commented about CSR:
"CSR has become an important objective in our society. The point of CSR is focus on how to communicate with society and customers." Finally, another international student, who research Coca Cola's use of contaminated water in its products, said, "Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept aimed at determining the …responsibilities to be taken into consideration by private business towards its stakeholders and the society…" Below, we will see how these students evaluated what they learned from the projects and the larger significance of the cases.
Student Evaluations and Case Significance The student of the Ford Explorer case was quite articulate, saying, "This case is important to me as a corporate communicator because it shows how to handle a crisis and what not to do to destroy a partnership. If your company is involved, you should accept some blame…The significance of all this to corporate communicators is that the public must come first, and communicating that (as well as acting upon it) can either make or break a company's image.
Student evaluations and CSR (e.g., Merck) were direct and concise:
This case brought to light the importance of transparency… Truth, honesty, and disclosure should be incorporated…every organization. Next time, they should….read over its mission statement, corporate responsibility approach, and Code of Conduct…and then decide how to handle the situation.
The researcher of Aviation Global, held this contrasting, positive view of its CSR and ethics:
457 I am very happy with the over all outcome of my research project… I had a strong feeling I found an organization that would be the flipside of the usual CSR story… I felt so many case studies show a major blunder on the part of an organization or a tragedy and how they're communication skills either bailed them out or helped them right a wrong. The notion of…just doing the right thing because its what they believe in is truly inspiring.
In studying the United Way embezzlement case, this student said:
I thought that… presidents of these corporations were volunteers who were morally conscious. I also assumed they had committees that would develop a checks and balances within the organization…The basis of a charity is to have social responsibility. This case is very important to study if you work for a nonprofit because it can prepare you for the worst thing possible: the loss of public trust.
Building on this, the student covering allegations of McDonald's cruelty to animals said:
Transparency and trust are big issues that can be a downfall for a corporation. It is usually the things we need to know that are hidden from us, and that is what ends up having a negative effect on everyone.
The student who analyzed the Pepsi syringe case indicted the media in creating the (false) crisis:
One thing I want for people to take away from my paper is do not believe everything you hear about in the media!