Good Corporate Citizenship Mirrors Positive Public Relations
Responsible corporate citizenship goes hand in hand with good public relations. Companies that are focused on responsible operations recognize the importance of public safety, community impact and employee concerns, so they build those major objectives into their public relations program. Rather than a myopic focus on the bottom line and a communication effort targeted only to stockholders, board members and business partners, responsible companies put emphasis and effort into keeping other, some would say lesser, stakeholders informed—the communities in which they work, the neighborhoods where they operate, their employees, suppliers, clients and customers. Although there may not seem to be an immediate, direct return on such an investment, the relationship, reputation and trust dividends accrue.
Companies that practice good corporate citizenship may not be as easy to name as their less responsible counterparts who make the news when they fail to take responsibility. It’s easy to come up with names of companies that neglected to put public concerns ahead of corporate profits. Think oil spills, unsafe mines, foods contaminated during processing, the list goes on. Defining corporate responsibility and good public relations requires a ground level, day-by-day approach:
It’s the CEO telling the truth when he or she discovers the company’s product has an ingredient that may pose a health risk.
It’s the corporation keeping the surrounding neighborhood informed when its production process has even the slightest possibility of causing harm.
It’s the organization that trains its employees to treat all customers with respect.
It’s the company admitting it made a mistake before the customers end up paying for it.
It’s pulling the toy off the shelves immediately when it poses a risk to children.
It’s making every effort to inform citizens about decisions and issues that affect their quality of life.
It’s reputation, not image.
It’s ethics, not slogans.
It’s about responsibility, not culpability.
Good public relations is not the splash across the business section that touts a new product. That’s just publicity. It’s not the mention on the six o’ clock news that the company had record earnings. That’s just publicity. And it’s not the rah-rah presentation at the annual meeting designed to pump up employee morale. If it’s not based on fact, that’s just, well, hype.
Publicity is an effective communication tool, no doubt. It’s possible to fashion a positive public image seemingly overnight. Hearing good things about an organization does tend to color our perceptions; that is, until our actual experience differs from what we’ve heard. Good public relations has not so much to do with publicity as it does with honesty and integrity.
Occasionally, a company does everything right—public education, internal communication, safety training, product testing—and something still goes wrong. In those cases, public relations is all about ethics and responsibility. Public health and safety should be paramount, well ahead of legal liability and market share. When the worst case scenario occurs, the fear of negative publicity may tempt companies to shift the blame, make excuses and grunt, “No comment.” Companies that admit responsibility, however, and set to work correcting the mistake, are usually able to pick up the pieces and survive, albeit painfully.
Good public relations is often not about publicity at all, but positive action. Employees, especially, base their opinions not on what they read the CEO saying in the paper, but on what they experience and observe inside the organization, and how they are treated on the job. Suppliers judge by the company’s fair and equitable business practices. Neighborhoods, by the effort to keep them informed. Communities by the support given to initiatives that help improve the quality of life of its more vulnerable citizens. Charitable organizations, by the leadership of company owners and managers who set a giving example and encourage employees to follow.
Confusing publicity with public relations is easy to do, but the public is more adept at seeing through the hype than we might think. Good corporate citizenship reflects a true public relations program and vice versa.
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Barbara Lezotte, APR is a nationally accredited public relations counselor who specializes in corporate and crisis communication. She is president of Lezotte Miller Public Relations Inc. in Okemos.