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?