Susan: Everett Martin has his finger on the pulse of Corporate Social Responsibility and reputation management. He’s one of the good guys, helping organizations understand the world as it is and not as it was when they could say one thing and do another. He is an advocate for ethics in the PR profession, and has worked with RBC, McGill, and SNC-Lavalin. He’s good peeps.
So, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is CSR because I know that that’s near and dear to your heart, and I’d love to get a sense of where you think. . . I sense out there, some cynicism about the whole concept of CSR. I think in some cases it’s kind of been managed in ways that have given rise to that cynicism.
I don’t think that cynicism has happened in a vacuum, but I’d love to get your thoughts on where it is now, where you think it’s going, how we can combat that kind of cynicism. Dazzle me baby.
Everett: Well, first of all I’m a big fan of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, in broad terms. I really like the activity of doing it on a personal level, but I do think that there is a certain amount of cynicism, not just on the part of the people who observe it, but there is on the part of the people who engaged in it.
I’ve seen a lot of the typical, “Okay well, what should we do in order to counter the fact that we’re dumping sludge in the river?” You know, “What can we do to make that okay?”
Susan: I think that’s a really good point, because I think a lot of corporate social responsibility activities are, in fact, brought up to either distract or to look like they’re solving a problem when in fact, they’re taking a tiny fraction of this thing that they’re doing, and they’re solving one tiny fraction of it, or they’re distracting. It’s like don’t look over there; pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, kind of thing.
So, I don’t know does it tie our corporations and brand going to have to kind of embrace a fuller definition, do you think? Or that the public now has a greater expectation from them?
Everett: Well, I think that there are a number of different types of companies, so their expectations are all going to be different. You’ve got the one type of company that’s doing 90% of things totally right. Everyone loves what they do, but there’s a dark 10% in their world.
And you can look at a company that makes computers, or cell phones, and you can say they’re improving connectivity, and they’re bringing people together, they’re allowing democratic discussion in third world countries, where that never happened, but at the same time the mineral that goes into that product is being mined in a conflict zone in Africa, right?
So, when we make the argument, in that case, that the company’s benefits are maybe greater than that one sin there, and that kind of a company needs to look at themselves in the mirror, and say, “Okay, is this a necessary evil? Is this the only way we can do the greater, better thing in the world?”
And if that’s the case, a CSR activity can help there, because you can say, you know we’re building bridges, maybe literally or figuratively, between people and we need to be able to make up for the bad things that happen as a result of that.
I think, there CSR can be done transparently. You can say there’s an unfortunate side to what we do, and we acknowledge it, and I think that that’s the big part of it, is that you have to acknowledge the downside of what you do. Without doing that, no type of . . . CSR is either trying to repair something, trying to kind of find a moral balance to help yourself sleep at night, or it’s like you said, it’s deflection, and it’s trying to get you to ignore the man behind the curtain.
Neither of those will work in the end, especially, because you’re corporate culture, and your employees, won’t allow that. They need to feel like what they’re doing is beneficial to the world in order for them to sleep at night, and if your CSR activities, or any of your public relations activities are not in line with that, then you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Susan: And whistleblowers, I mean, that’s a very real phenomenon that the corporate work space should actually understand is there.
So we have kind of old style PR, which was about controlling the message, and now there’s really a whole new definition that has to take place about PR, and CSR being part of that.
But the concept that anybody can communicate with a vast number of people, and you have a very socially aware generation coming up through the ranks that demands to A) Have their voice heard, as they should, and have a seat at the table, but also that isn’t willing to say, “Well, we’ll just do it the way we always done, and hope that somebody at the top does the right things.” They’re going to force accountability, and you see that more, and more.
Everett: Yeah, I’m stuck right in between those generations. You know, the Gen X-er, the cynical, like oh the worlds a bad place and you can’t change anything, and the Millenials. Who are like, “I’m not doing a single solitary bit of work until this place is cleaned up and it’s functioning the most ethical way possible.”
Everett: So, I see within myself both sides of that. I do think that there’s a bigger push from within. People feel more empowered than they ever have been, and they have been more avenues through which to communicate, including anonyms avenues, and so there’s less of a worry in their mind of being outed as a whistle blower.
I almost feel like the whistle blower thing is a bit of an archaic term. It feels like kind of a late ‘90s term, where you know we’ve moved into the ethical sphere from the ‘80s. Where you could be protected, if you came out as a whistle blower, but you couldn’t do it, you know, you couldn’t spread it across the map, and do it totally anonymously like you can now.
So I think that whistle blower protection is important, but I almost think that if your company is thinking about whistle blowers, you’ve probably got problems, because you’re engaged in things that you’re worried about getting the whistle blown on.
Susan: Well, and that’s exactly it, I think you have to look at everything you’re doing, and assume that somebody somewhere will communicate whatever you don’t want known out to the world if you’re not doing it right. I think it’s a great opportunity to look at all of your practices and say, “Is there anything here that we really wouldn’t want our grandchildren, or our children, or our friends to read about on the front page of a paper?”
Everett: Yeah, well, and that’s what . . . I was actually in a fraternity, in university, and no surprise, I became the public relations director of our chapter, and one of the things that I used to tell people all the time, or the fraternity guys was, “Never do anything that you wouldn’t be okay with your grandmother reading in the paper the next day.” That’s your compass if you needed one, that you didn’t have one built in for whatever reason.
And I think that that’s still true at every level, you know? I mean, some people might have really nefarious grandmothers, but for the most part we want our, our family to believe the best about us.
And if the identity that we have with them is not, if it’s at odds with the decisions we’re making in business, then that’s where no amount of PR, CSR, or anything can help, and it really the whole, the old now cliché, of putting lipstick on a pig. If you look in the mirror and see a pig, don’t reach for the lipstick, try to turn yourself into a different animal, and then you won’t need as many cosmetics.
Susan: Yes, that’s very true. Yeah, it is, and you and I have talked about this in the past, but the content that we really are kind of hitting a tipping point. You’ve had so many programs that have embraced this, “Gosh, let’s just build some warm and fuzzy credentials for ourselves,” and yet we really are past that point now, where we’ve got reports coming out from the U.N., from of all kinds of sources, you have 97% of the world’s scientists agreeing on global warming, and those who aren’t are quite often backing studies that were paid for by large organizations that have interests in keeping things the way they are.
And I think we’re at a point now where people just are looking for, they’re looking for honest conversation, and they’re looking for, “Well, here’s where we’re going, and here’s the path, and here’s the interim, and here’s what we’re actually doing to address this.” Not, not tap dance, “Well, hey! Look over there, a dancing pig…with lipstick!”
Everett: Well, I think that there’s a little bit of a–I won’t call it a war–but an ongoing conflict, just even within public relations, right?
Everett: You’ve got people in a number of different segments of the profession, and some of them got into it because they wanted to be the, you know the Nick Naylor from “Thank You for Smoking”, you know? The guy who you know talks, finagles, and gets his way through with confusion, and deflection, and false arguments, and they love that, you know? Some of them wanted to be lawyers, but couldn’t pass the tests, and so they think that PR is a fallback with fewer ethical boundaries.
Susan: PR, if you couldn’t make it in anything else, we’re here for you.
Everett: Well, and to an extent, a lot of your work is around branding, and that’s where the rebranding of public relations comes into play, and it’s a question of does PR need to be renamed? Which, some people say it does. We need to have something either more literal like “Stakeholder Communications,” or something more fluffy like “so and so Evangelist,” or whatever, but public relations is a polluted term, and that’s not my viewpoint.
Everett: I think that Public Relations perfectly describe what we do. We find publics, multiple publics, and we relate to them, which doesn’t mean we dictate, or pontificate, but we actually need to . . . half of our work needs to be hearing them, understanding them, in order to relate. You can’t relate one way, and that’s where the rebrand, if there is one, needs to happen.
Susan: And I would agree. I would agree that, you know even my concept of branding, lots of people when, when, when we talk to them, they’re concept of branding is, “Hey, let’s get a new logo, and show some lipstick on that pig, and really come up with a new color scheme,” and all of that, and it really starts from the inside out.
And I think it actually starts with understanding your values. What your values are, and how your values, what the values of your customers, or the people that you serve, what the values that they need from you, and where you’re lacking, or if those values are essential, then how do you build those into your company, or your brand?
And it really starts with fundamentals of who you are, and how you operate in the world, and then everything else you can build up from there. But you can’t start with the, “Gosh, we want everybody to think about us this way, so let’s make this colorful, or let’s do this.”
I think that we are at such a time where people can with a couple of clicks of a mouse find out a lot of information about you, and find out all the . . . cut through the smokescreen.
So, I think everything that we do, and I agree with you, I think public relations is an absolutely perfect term. It’s exactly what we are supposed to do, but I think that those who don’t align their values, and who don’t live up to their values, I think the gaps between is what we’re going to see, and that’s what we’ve seen in our profession, and in the activities of a great many companies.
And I think that that’s kind of where we are. It’s not with needing a new name. I think we’re really having to adhere to a greater standard of accountability, and a greater standard of behavior that gives assurance to the public that we are, in fact, a voice for the public’s we serve.
Everett: I totally agree, applaud, I would applaud if I thought the microphone would capture it properly. I totally agree with you, and I think that a step towards that would be some sort of formalization around what public relations is.
That’s a bit my personality. I like to make definitions and formalize things maybe more than other people I deal with, but I think that there is definitely a role for . . . obviously I’m involved with Canadian Public Relations Society, have been for most of my career, and now as a board member, and I think there’s a lot of value in a couple things in the Canadian Public Relations Society Code of Ethics, which I have printed out, and on my wall in my office.
I think that that’s a really important set of guidelines there that all of our members are supposed to be adhering to, and as well, the accreditation program. For us, it’s APR. Other organizations have different accreditations, but I think some level of standard, both of skills, but also ethics, and conduct is really, really key.
And there’s a part of me that would like to see our profession become a real profession, or to become respected in the way that law, or medicine, are. Maybe we’re not going to get there easily, but I think that when someone says, “Oh, are you working with accounting?” You say, “Well, I have a bookkeeper.” Or they say, “Oh, you’re going to a massage therapist?” “Oh, I’m going to a masseuse.” Like, there’s always that second version that’s not quite as good as having the real thing.
And I think that we need to set up the real thing, and determine what that is. So, that the people that were engaged in something else, that’s kind of like it, are separate and that we can control at least the ethical qualified people, who have passed the test, essentially.
Susan: So, would you advocate then very much like law school? I mean, that debate has been going on for a very long time. Would you set up something like a law school, maybe what, I don’t know a three-year extra degree, or something in this case, and maybe articling, and going that route?
Everett: I think that apprenticing, or articling, in some way would be nice to see, and we’d have to start it somewhere, and I think accreditation, at least, is a first step. If you get enough people accredited and it makes a big difference, in terms of how the industry is perceived, then a full set of certifications, or whatever the next level up would be from that might not be necessary.
But the CPRS, Canadian Public Relations Society, is already down the road of making education standardized. Their PRK Program, where there’s an exam now out of school, essentially a standard exam. So, those things are being done little by little.
It’s just a matter of are there enough public relations people in PR, who have influence, who believe that ethical and skill standards need to be formalized. And the answer might be no, you know? There might be a lot of people that are like, “That’s more bureaucracy. That’s more hoops to jump through. We just don’t need to do that.”
Everett: That’s good.
Susan: Yeah, it is good, but you’re right it’s not necessarily the norm, and yeah that’s an interesting question. And I know too that there’s, some of it’s generational, and some of it is just well, there’s a sense that maybe there are some new skills that PR practitioners could be adapting, and that those too could be part of what people are being tested on.
I mean, there’s a very . . . PR is changing radically, and not every practitioner, and not even the exam, or the test, or any of those, or the current teachings around PR, through a lot of organizations, haven’t necessarily kept up with all of that. That’s not just PR. That’s every organization. It’s just that ours has been so deeply affected by digital.
Susan: There’s just a lot. There’s a lot, and a lot going on, a lot of moving parts.
Everett: Absolutely, and I think that’s what draws people like you and I into the profession. So, it’s the moving parts, and the ever-changing landscape is, at least it’s what excites me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything that I’m talking about honestly.
But I find enough interesting work and diversity, and what I do for my clients, and for the companies I’ve worked with. I think that a little more stability, and kind of knowing what to expect from the profession itself would be beneficial, and that’s what I try to work towards in my role.
Susan: Yeah, and I think too . . . Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I’m just pushy that way.
Everett: That makes two of us.
Susan: But, I think you’re right. I think helping the organization embrace some of the newer methodologies, and encouraging all practitioners to understand the world, and the life of digital, and also just some of the nuances of our understanding of how the world works, and how the next generation expects that the world works.
Because, you know sometimes ethics are a slippery slope. Sometimes, what one person would think is ethical another person wouldn’t. So, maybe we need to reopen the conversation of . . . I mean, I find that some corporate behavior falls under what is currently defined as ethical. I’m not going to go into examples, but I don’t find it ethical.
Everett: Well, here’s where I can be pushy. I’d like you to go into some examples, Susan. I’d like to hear what you think about CSR and PR activities in let’s see, what industries? Tobacco, oil, and gas . . .
Everett: . . . firearms, defense weapons . . .
Everett: . . . liquor . . .
Susan: I think a lot of them are the worst offenders in terms of . . . and there are some great . . . there are some very good programs within them, but I think a lot of those have come out of a tradition where it has been about the distraction, and getting people who’ve been in that mindset for a very long time into the mindset where they’re publics are moving, it can be very challenging.
Everett: Is public relations, in the way that we would like to see it done in an ethical way, is it compatible with that segment of the economy, or is there just that group of industries that is a necessary evil in our world, and we just have to say, “Hey, look, in order to defend ourselves we’re going to end up killing people with guns. So, there’s no point in us doing CSR activities around guns.”
Or there’s no point in us criticizing any CSR activity that’s done by Smith & Wesson because they know they kill people. That’s kind of what they do, and it’s silly for us to decide whether their CSR activity is authentic or not. That’s kind of what I struggle with is how . . . I’ve been lucky to work for ethical companies, right?
Susan: Same here.
Everett: Yeah, and so we can say, “Hey, we have all these choices,” you know? For instance, I worked with RBC, which has a world class CSR program. I was fortunate to be able to work on pretty much anything, right? Because banking relates to the world, so it’s great.
But some of our clients, I’m sure, were a whole bunch of different types of companies that don’t have that luxury, and I would struggle working for a tobacco company, where even the leaders of the tobacco companies can no longer say, “Our products don’t hurt anyone,” because they went through congressional hearings, that don’t allow that anymore in the US and they’ll get sued.
Susan: But they were willing to do that, and a lot of them lied, you know?
Everett: So, whoever’s there now, you know, the people who replaced them, how do they progress with this? What is the identity that they’re working with?
Susan: Yeah, that’s a fascinating question, but you and I have made the decision, that we can’t support that activity. I also think you have the rise of . . . I struggle with the word “consumer”, because there’s a rejection of that word in certain circles, and I can appreciate that rejection, because we’re labeling people only in how they relate to our product, and they of course see themselves as so much more than that.
So, I’m using the word “consumer” with that in mind, but you have groups like some of us. Like a number of organizations that are standing, that will stand and can rally people very quickly. So, it’s not just the, “Oh well, there’s that segment over there, and nobody can really do anything about that.” They’re being challenged, and I think they’re going to be continued to be challenged, by an ever-growing number of advocacy groups.
And I think that’s going to redefine the landscape in ways that you and I can’t, and that our professional association might be doing in theory, but really it’s on the ground, and it’s going to be people who say, “No, we won’t accept this.” And that will affect shares. It will affect how corporations are valued.
I think that’s where we’re going to find out if and how those CSR programs are legitimate, or can live. It’s because people are going to take them on. The same way that you used to go into hospitals and people would be smoking, you know? You used to go . . . there are just tolerances, whereas new people come into their positions of power, it’s like they’ve looked around and said, “No, we’re not going to take this.”
And I agree with you. Millenials are extremely optimistic, and feel very empowered to do great things in the world, and I think we need them. I think we need great, bright people with energy, and hope. I think we need that hope, not as a dismissive kind of, “Oh gosh, somebody else will do something,” but they’re very engaged, and very willing to put their money where their mouth is, and to spend vast hours, and energy making the world better.
Everett: Well, Susan, you obviously know your audience, because there’s nothing a Millennial wants to hear then, “You’re needed, we need you, and you can validate yourself.” My frosty side is totally tuned into what you’re saying. My cynical, whole wheat, side is saying, “Yeah, but it’s a tough slog, and to many people working against it.”
Susan: It is a tough slog, but I think if we’re going to make it as a civilization, we need people with that energy, and I think it’s wonderful that we got them, and I think that they can make a difference. I really think that they can affect how people buy, how people purchase, how people perceive a company, or perceive of a government.
And I think they can bring about faster change than anything you or I could do with a group of professional associations sitting around figuring out what our ethical code should be, and not to say that those things shouldn’t happen. I think that they absolutely have to, but I think where the real movement is, is boots on the ground.
Everett: What I’m hearing you say, Susan, is that you need Millennial to cooperate with each other and help the public relations societies develop the strategies, and the priorities, for the profession, right? That’s what I’m hearing?
Susan: Yeah. Well, I think . . . well, you know it’s not just Millennials, but I do think that as they are inheriting this world, and there are so many opportunities are not there, that have been there for previous generations.
Everett: That’s for sure, yeah.
Susan: Yeah, I mean they’ve really been handed kind of a short shift, and then they get labeled things like entitled. And how much more entitled are they, when it’s previous generations that have left them this mess, and no jobs?
Everett: Susan, that’s in the past. You’re not supposed to dwell on the past. If you’re so optimistic, then you should be focusing on how to make it better. That’s what the people who want to get away from the responsibility would say.
Susan: Well, yes. Yes, I don’t think that . . . I think Millennials, and I think increasingly maybe their parents too are becoming aware that it’s not their kids fault and their grandparents. Certainly, I think there’s a lot of values alignment, but I do see great hope.
And as public relations professionals, our job should be listening to the public. That’s really what we should be encouraging our clients, and everybody else to be doing, and that’s what we should be doing. It’s not hearing, it’s not listening for what we want to hear. It’s listening for the new. It’s listening for the things that challenge our assumptions. It’s listening . . .
There was a story of, it’s actually John Furlong, and I’m of two minds, the man himself, but I love this story. And the story is he oversaw the Olympics in Vancouver, and when he came to Canada, he was interviewed at Immigration, as all immigrating assumed to be Canadians are, and when he was handed back his papers, the immigration official said, “Make us better.”
And I love that. I think of that every time that I go across the border, but I think of it too whenever I speak to somebody who I’m meeting for the first time, or I like to remind myself that I have an opportunity in that moment, in that meeting, in that chance encounter for somebody to make me better, and I think that that’s what our profession is about.
Everett: Well, and I think if everyone kept that in mind, the number of ethical issues in PR, and eventually the perception of PR, would change naturally, and you wouldn’t need a lot of the stuff that I admittedly am a proponent of.
It’s just a question of whether or not we can have that [see] change in people’s mindset, when they go into meetings with client, or potential clients, and are told, you know,” We need to make this go away, or we need to make this look better, or we were telling you what we need.” And have the practitioner say, “Well, I’m hearing you, but are you hearing everyone else, and are you ready to listen to the advice I give you, and the advice that I can pass along from the tens, or hundreds, or thousands of people?” Who are willing to share with you if you’re willing to open your ears?
Susan: Yeah, and I think to, I guess, the thing that I come back to is rather than how can we make ourselves look better, how can we be better?
Everett: Yeah, and I think that just like, I’d like to believe that being better will have a quick turnaround into being perceived better, because I think both are important. You know, perception is reality, which is the old cliché in our industry, and just like we want our companies to do well, we need to do well. At the same time, we can’t assume that good deeds will be will be rewarded. I think we need to be . . .
Susan: Oh, no, no, no. We have to talk about that.
Everett: We need to be purposeful, and make a statement, right?
And that’s the formalized side of it that I like. That is that I want to start making change, making statement, and have those go hand in hand.
Susan: And they have to, and that’s what I mean. Is that quite often there is such a gap between what, what an organization is, and what it says it is, and it’s finding ways to narrow those gaps. And I think it does come down to . . . well, it’s asking ourselves if this is the perception, where’s the truth in it? Is there truth? Is it that we’re being misperceived, or are we doing something wrong?
Everett: Right, and that kind of brutal self-awareness, and honesty, both of that our clients need to have of themselves in their operations, but also that we need to have ourselves. . .
Everett: . . . as practitioner, those are equally important. There’s no perfect end; it’s just a process. It’s like sustainability, you know? You never achieve sustainability; you’re just always chasing it. I think it’s the same with ethics in communications.
Susan: Yeah, you can never achieve . . . There are certain things you can never achieve, whether it’s perfection, or whatever, but you always have to be in the chase.
Everett: Yes, absolutely.
Susan: Everett Martin, thank you very much for joining me today.
Everett: Absolute pleasure, thank you for having me, and congrats on the podcast. They’re all very good, and I encourage anyone hearing this one to listen to the rest.
Susan: Thank you.