Remote control: corporations and their public image

 
The face that corporations reveal to the public is carefully controlled. This includes almost all their activities, from how much of a particular product a company sells to the amount of public dissent a company may experience. This careful crafting of corporations' public image, determines how effective engaging with corporations on social and environmental justice issues can be. When grassroots campaigners or NGOs enter into negotiations with large corporations, the corporate employees they meet or discuss issues with are often not the decision makers themselves but corporate social responsibility (CSR) staff, whose job is to present a particular image of a company caring about and striving to deal with public concerns. The messages put across by these employees are carefully crafted and tweaked by their public relations (PR) specialists. 

CSRThe job of corporate CSR and PR departments is to manage their companies' reputation and ensure that they maintain their 'social license to operate', i.e. that the public do not become so dissatisfied with with these companies that they may start to organise effective resistance against them. This article takes a brief look at the methods employed by corporations to shape their public image.

PR - When it comes to managing their public face, corporations' first recourse is to public relations, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry that dominates mainstream media and politics. Corporate public relations may be overt, aimed at persuading the public to buy, for instance, this hamburger or that pair of trainers. However, PR messages are often hidden, insidious and covert, blending seamlessly into the media. Commercial PR is presented to us as news and commentary, as journalism, as science and scholarship, as expert advice and public opinion, readers’ letters, opinion polls and consumer surveys. The public images of corporations, governments and high-profile individuals are repaired, protected and enhanced; products are sold and political messages advanced, without the true nature of the communication being clear to its audience. According to PR insider Julia Hobsbawm, somewhere between 50 and 80 per cent of the stories in the news media are sourced from or are directly influenced by public relations practitioners.[1]

For more on the public relations industry, see Corporate Watch's report 'All the Rest is Advertising: The Public Relations Industry and the Decline of Trust', available at http://corporatewatch.org/download.php?id=108.

CSR - Corporate social responsibility is defined as ”a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis.”[2] In other words, CSR is the practice of managing the social, environmental and economic impacts of corporate activities. CSR tactics may include the following:

Corporate philanthropy – Donating to charities is a simple and reputation-enhancing way for companies to improve their public image, and is often used to control and channel dissent. Corporations may use charitable giving simply as a way to look good, for example McDonalds support for children's charities. However, corporate giving often serves as the velvet glove of state repression against social justice movements. Through thinly disguised programmes and schemes, it utilises grassroots movements' need for money to channel their energy into projects that pose no serious threat to the status quo.[3] For more info on corporate philanthropy see http://corporate-rule.co.uk/drupal/philanthropy.

Cause-related marketing – This is the practice of associating a company's logo with a charity or campaign in order to associate the company's brand with the positive effects of the charitiable programme. For example, Tesco's 'Computers for Schools' promotion.

Sponsorship – Corporations also attempt to promote and improve their image by sponsoring highly visible public events. For example, BP's sponsorship of the National Portrait Award or Veolia's sponsorship of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

Codes of Conduct and Social and Environmental Reporting – Corporations often publicly state their 'values' through voluntary codes of conduct and reports documenting in-house monitoring of corporate social and environmental performance. The real aim of such reporting is to avoid serious, independent monitoring and regulation.

Community investment – Corporations often develop community projects to offset the negative effects of their business. These investment initiatives may range from sponsoring the local school fete and running volunteer schemes to PFI schemes to build social housing and other public facilities in the area.

Stakeholder engagement – Corporations often engage in 'dialogues' with those who they consider 'stakeholders', i.e. consumers, people affected by the projects and so on. These engagements may include:

Public consultations – These are aimed at persuading the public that a new project would be beneficial to them, for example chopping down woodland to build a supermarket. These consultations are usually run by public authorities hand in hand with the corporation(s) involved with the project.

Consumer engagement – this is used to ease the introduction of a new consumer product or technology, especially when it is controversial, such as GM food or nanotechnology.[4]

NGO dialogue – 'Dialogue' has become the key way in which NGOs interact with companies. NGOs have been flattered into thinking that a word in the right ear will alter destructive corporate practices. However, NGO dialogue is an issue management strategy by corporations. Through such dialogue, companies are able to fight pressure groups and manipulate the debate, gain intelligence and assess the possible threat posed by public dissent, and delay action through false dialogue.[5]

For more on the CSR industry, see Corporate Watch's report, What's Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility, available at www.corporatewatch.org.uk/download.php?id=55.

Thus, the question remains: Can corporate engagement with the public or grassroots campaigns and NGOs ever get us anywhere? The answer depends on many factors, including who initiates and controls the engagement process, how it is conducted and with whom, and what the expected outcome is. However, it is important to remember that corporations - which are, by definition, driven solely by the motive to maximise profits - will only engage with the public if they are sure this process will protect or enhance their business.

References [1] Centre for Economics and Business Research, 'PR Today: 48,000 Professionals; £6.5 Billion Turnover', November 2005. p.14.

[2] European Commission Green Paper 'Promoting a European Framework for Corporate Social Responsibility'. 18 July 2000.

[3] For more on corporate philanthropy, see http://corporate-rule.co.uk/drupal/philanthropy. [4] For more on this, see Beth Lawrence's article on 'upstream engagement' in this issue.

[5] For more on this, Peter Jacobs' article on corporate engagement with NGOs in this issue.

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