Tuesday, April 10, 2012

PR As Conscience

My last post stimulated some criticism.  Now, criticism, whether you agree with it or not, is always useful to the extent that it takes you “outside the box” of your own logic.
 In this case, a reader wrote: “If you believe that Business is so bad, so amoral, so sociopathic, why do you work in PR?”. 

Good question. 

First , all “Business” is not necessarily bad, amoral or sociopathic..  Think of your neighborhood businesses.  They compete; they try to make money-- but for the most part they are operate in accordance with the morality of the community in which they reside.  In fact, a lot of the time, they give as much as they get.   They are run by people just like you and me – they have a human face.

Families are collectives.  Clubs and teams are collectives.  Political parties, too.   And, oh yes, businesses.

How are collectives different from individuals?  Most -- the flesh and blood kind -- are hard-wired for  “conscience” – a superego – based on empathy and a sense of fairness -- it is in our brains.  But  this is not obviously not the case with a collective  -- whose conscience depends on the conscious choice of members or leaders to abide by a set of defined values that guide behavior.  You and I know instinctively was is good or bad -- but groups and institutions need to have it written down -- which is why democratic nations have constitutions and bills of rights.   

The problem today is that many -- but not all -- modern mega corporations lack such defined values. They have no constitutions, no moral contract with the public.  They respond only to the profit motive -- which is akin to a sociopath's desire for aggrandizement.  

“Why do you work in PR?” wrote my critic.   Good question!

Am I not just condoning, but facilitating the excesses of consumerism, corporatism and the one percent?  

The answer is that I (try to) work for company divisions and organizations that do have values.  (It’s important to be able to zzzzz at night).

And in its best form, public relations is    communication with the larger community that a company should serve.  PR does not have to be propaganda. It does not have to be exploitative. It can be democratic rather than plutocratic.

As I have suggested, there are businesses --and there businesses.  Mega-corporations - -internationals -- are ‘ legal persons’ with the rights of citizens (at least in the US).  Yet,   even if a global corporation is registered in a certain country,  it is still global  --  its “citizenship” is as questionable as its personhood .  
These companies are  also rarely accountable in the way you and I are.  If you or I commit a crime, we go to jail.  Can you send a corporation to jail?  And, recently, even when a corporation is caught out, doing something flagrantly illegal, the culpability of the company’s executives is ignored, as we saw with the financial scandals of the last few years. 
The preeminent bureaucratic defense -- the  Eichmann argument (“I was just doing my job”) --seems to work, even when people die.  Oh yes, the company may pay fines.  But the fines are usually small in proportion to the company’s income.  Suppose you murdered someone and paid a hundred dollars in fines.  Bad boy!

You cannot have personhood without accountability. But to some extent the fault lies with the global community which not only excuses but encourages corporate sociopathy.

 When a company is divorced from its community and its roots – when it lacks the moral compass enshrined in a philosophy --- when it is no longer accountable -- we have a big, big problem.

Still not all  large corporations are the same

Compare, for example, the AEON group here in Japan and Walmarts.  

Now the AEON group was founded by  Takuya Okada  and he had a certainly philosophy.  His family had been merchants since the 18th Century.  At  the end of WWII,  the country was in ruins and Okada worked not only for his own success but to benefit his community.    He had a tradition to live up to --and a sense of honor.   Foreigners are often critical of what they feel is the Japanese inability to separate themselves from their groups – we call it “lack of individualism” – but in reality it is no such thing.  Okada was clearly a creative individual—but he used that talent to benefit others. And Jusco and the Aeon Group embodies  a set of values, an intrinsic ethic.

So while Walmarts exploits,AEON gives back. Its profits go back into the business, and the company makes a genuine effort to provide consumers with quality products and to promote environmentalism. 

I like working for AEON – it makes me feel good about myself.

Panasonic is another company that I enjoy working for – and one that was also formed around a philosophy. 

Konotsuke Matsushita believed that businesses existed to serve the community – that they had to have a higher purpose beyond just making money.    And that philosophy still guides the company.  “Ideas for Life”.  Panasonic doesn’t just make cool digital cameras and televisions, it makes a whole range of environmentally friendly devices and technologies – things that actually help people live better. 

These are great companies.   

 Japan (of course ) also has companies that are not so great – such as TEPCO -- which came into being when the state-run electric power industry was privatized after  WWII.   So, TEPCO was not the product of a community or an individual entrepreneur -- it the product of free market ideology.  From the very TEPCO’s  corporate culture was all about money –  short-sighted efficiencies and economies of scale – all designed to make a few yen.  To the extent that TEPCO’s moral tradition was inherited  from the prewar bureaucracy  the corporation had few, if any values at all.

The antecedents of TEPCO were public utilities that existed to serve -- not to make money.  TEPCO, however, as a private company was set up to make a profit.  And, unfortunately, it had no other values.

So, my critic says, would I work for TEPCO?

Frankly -- yes -- if --(a BIG "if") I thought that TEPCO had done some soul searching and aspired to a degree of corporate morality -- and was trying to really communicate this new posture with the community.  Unfortunately, I see no indications of that.

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