Ethics Advice from a P.R. Firm

Some people are under the unfortunate misconception that Business Ethics is all about public relations, and that efforts by companies to act more responsibly are simply ‘window dressing.’ Of course, that view is bouyed now and then by companies who engage in greenwashing and phony philanthropy. It probably doesn’t help when a P.R. firm doles out advice on how to use corporate responsibility as a way to attract the attention of an influential subset consumers.

In this regard, see this press release from Ipsos Public Affairs:

Just over a quarter (26%) of Americans fall into a group Ipsos calls “Ethical Advocates.” These are people who regularly advise friends, family, colleagues and others to patronize – or more often, not to patronize – a particular company.

Sounds like an important kind of consumer to get on your side, right? Luckily, Ipsos can help! The press release provides a “Corporate Responsibility Roadmap,” consisting of “eight model behaviors that can help companies stand out and appeal to Ethical Advocates.”

What kind of advice do they give? Here’s a sampling:

Companies should sell “quality products and services at a reasonable price.” Alright, that seems reasonable.

Companies should provide “universal access to its products and services”, which means avoiding discrimination based on “wealth, age or geography”. That sounds nice, but it’s not possible. All companies discriminate based on wealth (that’s what “pricing” is), and I doubt there’s a company on the planet that provides service without regard to where you’re located. Well, Amazon doesn’t care (as long as you’re somewhere Purolator ships to, that is), but then they hardly need the advice.

Companies should support “the local economy by sourcing US products and labor”. Of course, this panders to one particular view of consumer ethics, one that says that giving business to local companies (that may or may not need it) is superior to giving business to companies (and employees) in developing nations that need the work desperately. That is at very least open to question (or in need of elaboration).

Companies should make sure its “activities are not detrimental to the environment.” Again, not possible. There are no companies that have zero impact on the environment. The only reasonable goal is to have a less detrimental effect (or, if you’re only thinking P.R., do your best to appear green. But then see my mention of greenwashing, above.)

The funny thing, of course, is that Ipsos’ “Corporate Responsibility Roadmap” consists (mostly) of perfectly good advice. Treat employees well. Be respectful in your marketing and advertising. Avoid unjustified discrimination. And so on.

But this press release also illustrates why the whole “ethics is good business” line is a double-edged sword. It would be great if more businesses understood/realized/believed that acting responsibly is a good way to earn a living. But the last thing we need is to generate cynicism — either on the part of business managers, or on the part of critics of the corporate world — about why it is that corporations might make very visible attempts to do better.

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