Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

Nick Nichols

5/19/2007 12:01:00 AM - Nick Nichols

Mr. Google was kind enough to send me a press release last week trumpeting the results of yet another public opinion survey on corporate social responsibility (CSR). According to the release, a huge percentage of Americans want Congress to ensure that companies address pressing social issues. The headline announced that an expert panel was going to convene at Georgetown University that very day to ponder the political implications of the survey.

The survey and the panel were sponsored and hyped by Fleishman-Hillard Inc., a big-league public relations firm, and the National Consumers League, a tax-exempt activist group with strong ties to the AFL-CIO, UAW and others unions. Their press release claimed that over 2,000 American adults were questioned about CSR during telephone interviews conducted by a professional interviewing service. Neither the press release nor the survey’s Executive Summary revealed the actual questions that were posed or how the survey participants were selected.

I have lived roughly fifteen minutes from the White House for almost three decades. During that time, I have learned three important facts about the political machinery in our nation’s Capital:

1. It is nearly impossible to convince even a simple majority of Americans to agree on anything, at any particular point in time;

2. “Expert panels” are often the purveyors of bovine flatulence (a.k.a. spin); and

3. Public opinion surveys are about as easy to manipulate as global warming computer models.

So, when I read the press release I concluded that something might be rotten on the banks of the Potomac.

For starters, the release claimed that, “82 percent of Americans want Congress to ensure that companies meet pressing social issues,” and that 65 percent of Republicans agree. I can only assume that the telephone interviewers must have been handed Hugo Chavez’s rolodex by mistake, because they certainly could not have been calling card-carrying Republicans.

However, failing to pass the red-face test did not stop the PR firm’s president from pontificating that, “As a result of the public’s expectations, next year’s elections may lead to greater government involvement in the role business plays in responding to societal concerns.”

The survey sponsors also claimed that 77 percent of the people interviewed agreed that there is a need for international CSR standards. So, if this survey is legit, a huge majority wants the U.S. Congress and, I assume, the United Nations to regulate and standardize how private corporations contribute to society. All those French socialists who disappeared during the recent election have apparently found their way to our shores and are biding their time answering phone surveys.

I was intrigued that a huge corporate PR firm and a pro-union activist group would join forces to conduct a survey and sponsor a discussion about CSR. What did these strange bedfellows have to gain?

A quick recon of the Fleishman-Hillard website answered half the question. It would appear that the flacks at Fleishman have been preaching the gospel of corporate socialism to their clients, and then cashing in when it’s time to write reports and news releases to communicate their clients’ good deeds. The firm has a sizable government relations practice, too. So, if the federal government gets involved in regulating CSR, Fleishman gets to wet its beak again. Now, thanks to the survey, PR firms involved in exploiting CSR can point to public opinion to justify their parasitic behavior.

What about the National Consumers League? Well, it turns out that of the 2,000 consumers interviewed about CSR, a significant number expressed the opinion that a company’s treatment of its workers is more important than its environmental performance. Wow! If I were a cynic, I would wonder which came first, the question or the answer. In the hands of pro-union activists, this survey response is political dynamite. Now organized labor can claim that while environmental issues are hot topics in the news media, the survey proves that corporate treatment of employees is a higher priority for Americans. Higher wages and benefits can now be part of the corporate social responsibility litmus test.

In a previous column, I called CSR a corporate shakedown racket. I stand by my words. CSR was conceived by activist groups, baptized by public relations charlatans and confirmed by corporate appeasement artists. I remember being told not to worry, that CSR was completely voluntary. Tell that to the new Speaker of the House, and to the international bureaucrats who are busy drafting CSR standards while corporate leaders soak in their Jacuzzis.

If Americans fail to question the bovine flatulence being spread about corporate social responsibility, the socialists will accomplish in corporate board rooms what they have failed to accomplish in the voting booth – destruction of free enterprise and rejection of the economic principles that made this country what it is today. When that happens, I wonder whether some PR firm will conduct a public opinion survey or sponsor an expert panel discussion? I suspect not. By then, public relations (a.k.a. propaganda) will be the sole function of government.