Category Archives: Corporate Responsibility

Crisis Communication and Culture

I’ll be in Bogota next week teaching a three-day workshop on crisis communication and management at Externado, a private university. The invitation from Gustavo Yepes Lopez, a management professor I met last year at a PR conference in Scotland, reciprocated my invitation to him. I arranged a series of lectures for him here in the Boston/Cambridge area.
At the “radical PR” ( conference at Stirling University, Scotland, last July, Gustavo’s presentation was about the extent of corporate social responsibility in Latin American companies. Not surprisingly, there’s not overly much, as the majority of companies are too small to be able to afford the kind of big ticket philanthropic and community relations efforts of the Addidas and BPs and IBMs and Apples of the corporate world.

I read today in the Boston Globe that local colleges including Boston College are now offering courses in philanthropy, which are reported to be attracting student interest. The reason? Perhaps the queasy state of the economy and the widely publicized stories of human, family, social misery — the foreclosures, the anxiety, the debt burden. Existential dread meets financial meltdown. The solution? Youthful idealism, which builds on the phenomenon of corporate social responsibility, a trend that began as a corporate reaction to the fear of government regulation and stakeholder discontent — particularly in the anti-establishment Sixties.

In the wake of the Union Oil spill of January 1969, in the pristine Santa Barbara, Calif., channel, high-profile, high-impact oil, chemical and other manufacturing giants came in for some serious abuse. Richard Nixon signed an executive order establishing the EPA, which took the reins of environmental stewardship from the clueless Department of the Interior. (Interior just didn’t get it.) Corporate America was as popular then as it is now, what with folks beating like a pinata Wall Street banks and The Insurance Company That Shall Not Utter Its Name. If the Sixties reduced the credibility of establishment companies, the Seventies made things even worse, particularly for the oil companies, what with the OPEC-driven gasoline price spikes and gasoline rationing lines that generated a few fist fights at gas stations, as seen on TV.

Companies fought back with money and rhetoric and publicity. They hired TV producers, magazined editors and writers like me. Atlantic Richfield, among other companies, launched “social reports” and started half-tithing their net income willy-nilly to innumerably outstretched hands in the health care, education, and even environmentalist communities. I worked on ARCO’s (today absorbed into BP) first social reports — stories of how ARCO helped raise funds to rebuild the Los Angeles library after a fire; how the company hired women biologists (women! what an idea!) to worry about flora and fauna. I was sent to a humongous surface (better known as “strip”) coal mining operation in Wyoming, where ARCO was engaged in a good dealĀ  of replanting, and had even built a brand-new town. Little League baseball fields. Sunday picnics. Church socials. American deus ex machina.

ARCO sponsored the undersea pro-environmental televised explorations of the then-iconic Jacques Cousteau. ARCO funded the popular astronomer, Carl Sagan’s, cosmological ruminations — televised, as well. CEO Thonton Bradshaw, for whom I toiled in ghostly silence, saw fit to rescue Harper’s Magazine from the financial precipice, and fund the Aspen Institute — that idealistic, utopian think tank — and kick off Harvard University’s ARCO forum.

So was this all just corporate America’s terrified reaction (the company also fought the dreaded “excess profits tax” and made nice with President Carter as well as with his successor, Ronald Reagan)? Well, yes, to some extent. But to some other extent it can be argued that Big Think CEOs like Bradshaw and Walter Wriston, then CEO of Citibank, may have had a conversion on the road to Damascus. They may have ushered in what European critical, leftwing thinkers like to call Late Stage Capitalism, with its endorsing echoes of Marx’s predictions of capitalism’s End of Days.

What has followed in the footsteps of the ARCOs and Dayton-Hudsons and Kodaks and other late-twentieth century socially conscious companies have been hundreds of big and small coreligionists like Starbucks, which brands itself as a Good Guy, with the appealing persona of its oft-times CEO, Howard Schulz.

So it’s off to Bogota, Colombia, where my colleague, Professor Yepes Lopez, will perhaps help me avoid my inevitable cross-cultural barbarisms and gaffes. What I’ll be sharing with 100 graduate students is what I’ve experienced on crisis communication teams, and what I’ve learned from scholarly researchers into crisis from academics like William Benoit, Ian Mitroff, Tim Coombs, Bob Heath and from in-the-trenches crisis managers like Lynn Kettleson and Larry Barton.

When a couple of Domino’s Pizza employees stuff a piece of cheese up their nostrils and YouTube it — that’s the kind of crisis du jour. Of course, so are the bizarre backstories to the public infidelities of U.S. politicians Spitzer, Ensign and Sanford.

In the preface to Richard Johnson’s book on healthcare crises (Case Studies in Healthcare Image Restoration: HC Pro Publishers), I wrote that we seem to be living in an age of crisis — or perhaps we always have been and never called it that. The poet Auden called the post-WWII, post-atomic era, “the age of anxiety,” the title of his collection published in the late l940s.

The conventional wisdom on public relations these days — from tech-savvy types in the twitterverse — is that PR is dead. Surely, the old newspaper-driven PR has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But what I find more interesting about PR are two phenomena that have moved from the PR industry;s periphery toward its center: crisis communication and public diplomacy. I imagine, as I deplane in Bogota next week, that I’ll be talking about the formerĀ  and doing a bit of the latter.

I also recognize what an utter cross-cultural novice I am, what with my tourista Spanish and my Harry Truman linen trousers. But how much damage can an obscure college professor do in week?

I’ll let you know, whoever you are.


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