There’s no avoiding the question on the relationship between public relations and corporate responsibility. But does PR hinder the process of building trust with critical stakeholders?
Questions about corporate responsibility have occupied the public consciousness since long before fundamental excesses such as casino capitalism in investment banking or the recent “dieselgate” crisis grabbed the headlines. In fact, growing demands on the part of company stakeholders such as employees, customers and NGOs with regard to sustainability and sustainable management – along with the forces of globalization and digitalization – are driving the transformation towards the postmodern economy before our very eyes.
The “metadiscourses” (the term used by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard for the fundamental questions being asked to generate legitimacy in society) are, in the case of economy, in the midst of a transformation. While economic modernity was focused on prosperity and growth, the lead currency of exchange in the postmodern economy is meaning and responsibility.
More than just selling “stuff”
Obviously these developments also mean new challenges for corporate communications. Just when our field has completed its decades-long molt from sporadic, reactive, monologic public relations work to systematic, active, dialogue-based communications management, some observers are again questioning the role of corporate communications in light of the new postmodern economy and its demands.
At a time when communications channels are no longer scarce – an age in which social media has made any separators between a company and its stakeholders hyper-transparent – why do we even still need communications professionals? Might PR even hinder the process of trust-building between a company and its critical stakeholders? In his book entitled “Trust me, PR is dead”, longtime PR consultant Robert Phillips argues that future companies will earn trust not based on PR and communications, but because they are interested in the well-being of their customers and interested in more than just selling stuff.
Addressing many, dialoguing with just a few
There is no avoiding the relationship between PR and corporate responsibility, i.e. how it is anchored organizationally in CR or CSR functions. In fact, both disciplines can learn a great deal from one another and complement each other effectively, assuming there is a common interest in and capacity for empathy. Where communications professionals strive to influence perception by way of reputation-building, CR managers aim to reconcile stakeholder interests by means of interaction. While corporate communications generates media attention and significance by addressing “many”, CR focuses on topical relevance in dialogue with a “few”. Simply put: PR is better at sending, CR is better at receiving.
The cycle of empathetic communication and interaction can serve as the basis for building long-term relationship capital, which is surely one of the reasons why many large companies have integrated PR and CR into one single function. Though Wolfgang Scheunemann, founder of the renowned Deutsches CSR-Forum, posed the question in his company’s newsletter whether Communications is really the right home for CR, PR thought leader Paul Holmes already provided the answer in his 2011 Holmes Report. Holmes asserts that no company can generate effective PR without successful CSR. In a company truly committed to both tasks, he says, PR and CSR are identical. And he’s right!