CorPoRate social responsibility and Apple

Ivy Ledbetter Lee

Acronyms are funny things, especially when the same letters morph into different meanings. HOV changed from Hour of Victory to traffic’s High Occupancy Vehicle. DDT was the insecticide dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane before it became Dynamic Debugging Tool. SST was Supersonic Transport and it’s also Sea Surface Temperature. ABC is either the American Broadcasting Company or Activity-Based Costing, an accounting term. When I started in corporate PR three decades ago, a CSR was a customer service representative. Now it’s a fully-matured public relations acronym standing for “corporate social responsibility.”

In simplest terms, CSR is a management policy that seeks integrity, transparency and fairness to its publics. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of CSR was Standard Oil, the monopoly owned by John D. Rockefeller which controlled the world’s oil around the turn of the last century. As incidence of violence and reports of corporate greed penetrated the public’s psyche, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee to help him manage and improve his personal and business image.  Lee’s instruction was to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want.” Lee believed in the “two-way street” approach to public relations, teaching that PR consists of helping clients listen as well as communicate messages. And giving back to the community was part of it, too; in fact, during his lifetime Rockefeller gave away most of his massive fortune.

Apple finds itself dealing with similar CSR issues. “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” an off-Broadway play by Mike Daisey, has received attention lately for its on-stage revelations about Apple’s use of the Foxconn Technology plant. Foxconn employs 430,000 people in China. Daisey observes inhumane conditions there including workers threatened with life in prison for joining a union and 13-year-old girls doing 13-hour shifts. The factory also installed nets under the windows, following a rash of suicides. Apple has just announced that it has joined the Fair Labor Association to review the firm’s factories. But some are questioning the legitimacy of this watchdog group, and Apple will inevitably be facing more questions if they don’t adopt a true CSR policy.

CSR is where it’s at today (an expression I might have used three decades ago). It’s an area of PR worth studying and embracing…and we’ll be doing more of that here. Your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “CorPoRate social responsibility and Apple

  1. Susanne Engelen

    It’s funny that as soon as organizations start claiming that they are socially responsible, the public suddenly starts examinating these organizations on their corporate behavior; to get to know whether they really act in a socially responsible manner. This mostly leads to the revealing of some kind of dark past, even if this dark past represents something really small and insignificant – after all, nobody can be perfect; everybody makes mistakes, so do organizations. The downside of this is that these revealings inevitably lead to a harsh judgement from the public. This means that claiming your company is CSR, often leads to the deterioration of your corporate reputation. So organizations start wondering why they would use this concept in the first place? Sadly it really seems like organizations who don’t claim they are CSR, will eventually be better off than organizations who try to do the right thing. This is called the moral paradox and let’s all be aware of this concept first, before judging any organization.

  2. Lindsey Dodge

    I definitely agree that if companies like Apple had their products manufactured in the United States that the prices would be astronomical. So many companies go abroad to places such as China to make their products so that they can make a big profit selling somewhere else. All it takes is one company’s working conditions to be exposed to start a trend of reconstruction and new regulations. History always has a habit of repeating itself, take for example the happenings of and after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

  3. Julia Chappell

    It is surprising to me that Apple, a company with a reputation for being innovative and authentic, would let its CSR slide. I guess innovation comes at a price. I read that general that if Apple Products were made in the United States and kept at the same gross margin, the price would have to be raised double or more. If Apple wants to keep prices low and bad PR out of it’s, they would be wise to revise their CSR. Especially now with the Off-Broadway play calling even more attention to the issue, if Apple does not genuinely take care of their CSR issues they would find themselves in ever hotter water.

  4. Alecia Detka

    I agree that because of the superiority of Apple this problem is receiving even more harsh judgement than others would, which is also very sad to think that it took a big company like Apple to shed some serious light on factory working conditions. I also want to believe that with Apple (which has in the past carried a lot of respect) attempting to make the necessary steps to solve this problem that it will be the beginning of recreating the other factories that have horrible working conditions. It could be the next trend that companies will pick up on in order to appeal to an even wider audience. They would be able to guarantee that their products were not made by 13-year-old girls forced to work 13 hours shifts.

  5. Jenny Zheng

    Apple is definitely not doing enough to minimize their bad image. However, there are so many people that buy their products that it is pretty much overlooked by consumers. Everyone wants the latest product and no one wants to think about where it came from and what it took to make it.

  6. Phil Hecken

    I always thought ABC was “always be closing.”

    Glengarry reference aside, Apple is a fascinating case-study. Not to defend any of its actions, particularly in regard to outsourcing labor to China, but Jobs demanded perfection and oftentimes the only to get it, on time and under (or close to) budget was to have foreign factories do his bidding. Had Apple sought to use American labor and ingenuity to produce the iPhone for example, it might STILL not be brought to market. It’s all fine and good for us to decry conditions in other nations (as we are wont to and should), but lets face it, most of the Apple products many of use enjoy and depend upon could never be manufactured here, despite our wishes.

    Apple deserves the public scrutiny it gets, and should strive to improve the conditions of the factories which manufacture many of its products. However, we must also realize that in order to meet insatiable demand, American factories and workers simply aren’t capable of meeting that demand. We want it both ways — better, higher quality products at a lower price — but at what cost? We want a greener planet, but we often crave electricity to power our toys — with wind, solar and hydro unable to meet that demand, we must either rely on fossil fuels or nuclear. I believe a similar parallel exists with Apple products.

    Corporate Social Responsibility is extremely important, and we should demand it wherever practicable. However, we must also realize that with CSR there are costs — costs which society may ultimately be unwilling to bear in the marketplace.

  7. Annik Spencer

    I think that is it so interesting that Apple is facing so much backlash and hatred from the public right now! Apple has been a trusted and loved corporation for a number of years now, so this horrible story about the Apple factory conditions was surprising to learn about!

    As for the topic of CSR, I think it is EXTREMELY important for a company to understand and implement corporate social responsibility. I actually feel as though smaller companies should focus on this even more than larger corporations like Apple and Nike. There is a pretty good chance that larger companies will be able to “bounce back” from socially irresponsible acts, but smaller companies will probably fail.

  8. Abby Littleton

    I think you did a great job explaining CSR using the Rockefeller and Apple examples. Taking such responsibilities really does show good PR. This was a very interesting piece.

  9. D

    The funny thing is is that the only reason why Apple is under such harsh judgement is because it is one of (if not the most) desired companies in the world. It has actually been reported that some garment factories have much worse conditions than Foxconn does. Just like Apple, Nike was under fire when people learned of the conditions in their factories and that raises the question – if Apple and Nike, two successful and idolized companies are being questioned about their workers’ safety and conditions, what about the thousands of other, smaller companies? How do their factories’ conditions compare?


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